Social Technologies Analyst Mark Justman Describes Three Scenarios for Future of Virtual Education

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With connectivity rising, virtual education is likely to play an increasingly important role in the future of teaching and learning.

Virtual education is a growing trend in World I, but how it will play out depends on a variety of factors, according to a recent brief by analyst Mark Justman of the futurist research and consulting firm Social Technologies.

In an attempt to determine the most likely scenarios, Justman described three potential evolutionary paths for virtual education: digital enrichment, clicks-and-bricks hybrids, and e-tutoring.

"While the future of virtual ed is likely to contain some elements from each of these three approaches, the scenarios emphasize possible divergences to highlight the range of potential paths," he explains.

SCENARIO ONE: Digital Enrichment

Currently, schools integrate computers into student learning via dedicated computer labs and classes, besides having computers in classrooms themselves. Continuing evolution of this practice--using information technology to enrich existing curricula--could steer the future of virtual education toward wider use of digital tools and virtual learning environments designed to supplement conventional classroom instruction.

Drivers for this scenario include:

  •     Mainstreaming of computer gaming. Immersive videogames and multi-user online game environments are gaining cultural influence.
  •     Technophile youth. Members of the Millennial generation have grown up as "digital natives," having a high comfort level with information technologies.
  •     Web-based collaboration tools. Tools for digital collaboration, such as blogs, wikis, and podcasts, have become much simpler to use, and are now common in social and news-based contexts.

SCENARIO TWO: Clicks-and-Bricks Hybrids

This scenario involves expanding existing class offerings by adding new, virtual online classes alongside existing teacher-led ones. Activities would still occur largely within the confines of conventional schools, but distance learning would slowly be added to the curricula, allowing for a cost-effective expansion of educational offerings without significant investments in additional staff or facilities.

Drivers for this scenario include:

  •     Educational cost containment. Schools face perennial funding challenges, which can be exacerbated locally by rapid population growth. Virtual classes could help schools adjust to sudden or temporary increases in the number of students.
  •     Demand for curriculum expansion. College-bound students and their parents are demanding greater access to Advanced Placement classes and International Baccalaureate programs.
  •     Turnkey curricula. Commercial virtual curricula are beginning to come to market, making it easier for schools to purchase specific virtual classes as the need arises.


Instead of enriching or supplementing traditional instruction, virtual learning in the E-Tutoring scenario gradually begins to replace traditional instruction. E-tutoring software has several educational advantages, such as allowing learners to progress at their own pace, standardizing instruction, and simplifying routine mastery testing. It could gain a foothold through remedial instruction, and then gradually spread to other areas of the curriculum.

Drivers for this scenario include:

  •     Falling costs of IT. Computer costs continue to fall, as exemplified by the One Laptop per Child initiative, which has developed student laptops that cost less than $200 for Worlds 2 and 3.
  •     Mandatory testing . Schools are placing more emphasis on meeting testing requirements, in part driven by testing mandates like the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal educational initiative.
  •     Global competition. The globalized knowledge economy is elevating the competitive importance of educating highly skilled knowledge workers.

According to Justman, elements from each of the three scenarios are likely to play some role in the future of virtual education, but certain scenarios may be more probable for certain types of school districts.

"Well-funded suburban school districts are likely to gravitate toward a digital enrichment approach, while underfunded or rural school districts are more likely to adopt a clicks-and-bricks hybrid approach to virtual education," he says, noting that in both cases, the approach to virtual education is an evolutionary change from conventional instructional practices.

The E-Tutoring scenario is more of a wildcard scenario--one that has a much greater potential for disruption. "As 'helicopter' parents attempt to position their children for top colleges, they could find online e-tutoring services to be a cost-effective alternative to more expensive after-schooling services like Sylvan Learning Center or Kumon."

Justman also believes e-tutoring services could also appeal to parents concerned about the so-called "fuzzy math" curricula, because e-tutoring approaches tend to place a stronger emphasis on more traditional measures of content mastery.

School districts concerned about demonstrating progress toward their NCLB goals could also turn to e-tutoring technologies as a more effective means for boosting student performance on standardized tests.

To further discuss these scenarios with Mark Justman, contact Hope Gibbs, Social Technologies' leader of corporate communications: hope.gibbs @

Mark Justman joined Social Technologies in 2003 as a senior writer/ analyst. His work has focused on tracking and analyzing consumer and technology trends in the automotive, retail, and energy industries. A professional futurist since receiving his MA in future studies from the University of Hawaii in 1999, Mark's primary interest is identifying the emerging issues and discontinuities that have the potential to impede, accelerate, or modify extrapolative trends. Prior to Social Technologies, Mark worked at the Institute for Alternative Futures, where his project work included construction of biotechnology scenarios for the UK's Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and creation of an interactive forecasting tool for healthcare on behalf of the World Health Organization. Areas of expertise: Energy (green, renewable, oil), the future of US politics, future of technology

Social Technologies is a global research and consulting firm specializing in the integration of foresight, strategy, and innovation. With offices in Washington DC, London, and Shanghai, Social Technologies serves the world's leading companies, government agencies, and nonprofits. A holistic, long-term perspective combined with actionable business solutions helps clients mitigate risk, make the most of opportunities, and enrich decision-making. For information visit, our blog:, and our newsletter:

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