Mark Brown Eamon Costello Enda Donlon

Digital education as social practice: Major trends shaping online learning futures



This paper explores some of the major trends shaping the future of online learning. It asks, what might the future look like? While the paper does not set out to predict the future as the authors do not have a crystal ball, it does endeavour to provide a bigger picture helicopter view of the online learning field. It responds to the tendency to overlook the research literature during the Covid-19 pandemic and aims to help keep the future of online learning in the political spotlight. The paper establishes that defining online learning is not a straightforward task and widespread differences exist in the global use of the term. A critical multifocal perspective is then adopted to identify five macro-level trends which help to frame the analysis from different angles and viewpoints. The discussion covers much ground and draws on a wide range of literature to illustrate how the digital education ecosystem is simultaneously converging, getting larger in scale, more open and closed, and is growing in diversity. Inherent tensions across these contradictory trends demonstrate how online learning needs to be understood in terms of wider societal change forces. Accordingly, the helicopter analysis attempts to steer a path between wider social issues, the language of opportunity, and the need for deeper criticality. Throughout the paper, there is the spirit of hope as educators have considerable agency to help shape possible, probable, and preferred online learning futures.


  • Online Learning
  • Covid-19
  • Future Trends
  • Hybrid Learning
  • Digital Education Ecosystem


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