North America is leading the way in providing a rich seam of electronic learning resources which can be tapped by communities which need them the most. Keith Yeomans reports from the US on the lessons for policy-makers in the UK. In a small, dust free, high tech building within sight of the Rockies on the outskirts of Denver a man sits monitoring the screens on a television console. Outside, a massive dish beams the 24-hour output of the Mind Extension University via satellite to 26 million television households in the United States.
Ten minutes' drive away through the scrublands is the ME/U's headquarters. It is one of 17 subsidiaries of Jones International Ltd, a leading US cable television company whose owner, Glenn R Jones, has a personal mission to deliver broad-based and affordable education to the public.
In another small building nearby, young people sit in booths answering calls to 1-800 777 MIND, ME/U's toll free registration and student support number. 80 per cent of its television output is made by the 50-plus affiliated universities whose courses it delivers. The rest is made in- house.
Used by 36,000 lifelong learners, ME/U offers first and higher degrees accredited by these affiliates, as well as vocational and enrichment courses. Launched in 1987, it was designed to help higher education institutions increase their competitive edge in the face of rising costs. Its ambitions for international expansion include the United Kingdom.
ME/U is one of more than 30 organisations I visited recently on a study tour of North America, thanks to a Winston Churchill Fellowship, looking at the information superhighway's role in promoting access to education. It is one example of the many private/public models that have evolved in a country where there is an established tradition of distance learning as a means of making educational resources accessible to those outside the ambit of conventional campuses.
Its broadcasts can be received in about two-thirds of the 25 US cities with large African-American and Hispanic populations. ME/U has carried out research into ways of reaching these groups, whose access to education may be as limited as those in rural areas.
Down the road in Fort Collins, Colorado, the National Technological University takes a similar approach to a different facet of affordable higher education. The Denver area is the heart of the US cable industry because of its location under the midpoint of the satellite orbit arc spanning the country. Described by its staff as "a big switch", the NTU is a private, non-profit, accredited institution beaming the interactive, television-based masters courses of 46 engineering universities to the niche market of postgraduate engineers in the workplace, both in the US and in the Asia-Pacific region.
The NTU is housed in a similarly small, dish dominated office block, managed by a small team. All courses and faculty are evaluated. All contributing faculty are on contract, the lowest scoring fifth being shed each year. Although it charges higher rates to companies than conventional universities, the NTU claims that the saving obtained by keeping students in the workplace makes it a better buy for employers The information superhighway makes it easier to reach niche markets. Located not in Arizona but in a first floor office just off San Francisco's Market Street, the University of Phoenix's online campus teaches 18,000 home based students across the US, entirely by electronic mail. Seminars are conducted asynchronously - rather like playing chess by post. It is argued that any loss in the cut and thrust of live discussion is counterbalanced by the opportunity for more retiring students to take a full part. The ability to sit in front of a PC screen and call up (with due security precautions) the entire content of any course, the contributions and scores of all individual students made this one of the more dramatic insights into the electronic campus's potential. Running costs are, however, similar to those of the university's conventional campus.
The student profile raised an access issue: 80 per cent of students across a broad range of courses are men.
Contrasting but relevant perspectives on the superhighway's role in lifelong learning came from the Commonwealth of Learning, based in Vancouver, Canada, and PEACESAT, located on a campus of the University of Hawaii. Constitutionally very different organisations, both are working on ways of using the technology to deliver cost effective, high-quality education to island communities whose geographical position has denied them access to conventional higher education. The solutions beginning to emerge from their work, especially the need to develop cross sectoral approaches involving business and the community, are relevant not only to these exotic communities but also to the pockets of social exclusion in our own cities and rural areas.
Conventional universities are also exploiting the changing environment resulting from the implementation of vice president Al Gore's information superhighway initiative. An impression emerged from the tour that, while the infrastructure available to institutions was not substantially greater than in the UK, the high profile given to the initiative and the suite of public sector interventions flowing from it had resulted in a higher level of awareness among administrators and academics of the issues and resources needed to make electronic education happen.
The Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications, a regional compact in state higher education formed six years ago to promote resource sharing and cooperative planning, mounts audio seminars posing questions such as: "What is your vision for a state-level information infrastructure and how does it fit in with your state's existing funding and program priorities?" State and institutional strategies based on needs analyses make managers conscious not only of the issues surrounding technology implementation but also of their spending power as consumers in the electronic marketplace. This has led to tough negotiations with telematics suppliers, of a kind too rarely evident here.
In the US a universal telephone service has traditionally been maintained at state level by public utility commissions. The prohibitive cost of transferring this approach to the superhighway has led to the semantically critical discussion about universal service or universal access. This is one element in a wider public debate about the reorganisation of telecommunications regulation to facilitate superhighway development.
The outcome will be only one influence on the price paid by learners. Another swath of cost factors clusters round the "platform debate" between the cable, computer and telecommunications companies. Regulation has led to each sector investing in systems with different characteristics. Telecoms offers low bandwidth, low user end cost and high interactivity. Cable delivers high bandwidth, low user end cost and low interactivity. PC-based systems offer variable bandwidth plus CD-Rom capability, high user end cost and high interactivity.
Developments in satellite and wireless technology will extend the reach of interactive multimedia systems into rural areas but with a lower capacity return path. While very few broadband applications, even in education, demand full-scale, real-time interactivity, it is important to ensure that learning, teaching and administrative systems are available in forms which can be delivered in various ways to ensure equity of access.
Inequities in user cost resulting from the "user pays" principle are hard for us to imagine in a country which has enjoyed both broadcasting and telecommunications systems based on universal service. Television viewers and telephone subscribers in the Scottish isles pay the same level of charge for these services as those living in London even though the cost of delivering them is many times greater.
Some lessons in developing the technology for access to post-school education in the UK are outlined in the report of my north American study tour, Learners on the Superhighway? These are especially relevant now as UK public sector policymakers are beginning to launch their own strategic planning initiatives.
The Department of Trade and Industry last autumn announced the formation of a Multimedia Group of industrialists and public sector representatives. The Department for Education has just launched its consultation paper Superhighways for Education. Electronic learning is a key element in the Labour Party's commission on superhighways.
Within the sector, the Further Education Funding Council's learning and technology committee continues to meet having produced an interim report, and the higher education funding councils' Joint Information Systems Committee has just begun its own consultation process with the issues paper Exploring Information Systems in Higher Education.
A National Institute of Adult Continuing Education survey has shown that disadvantaged groups are being excluded from current provision while recent studies by the University of Sussex suggest that adult education in rural areas is in decline. Access for these socially excluded groups should be a priority, but most of us are excluded from the faster lanes of the superhighway.
Open University research shows more than twice as many men as women having access to a PC at home and work. Age, left/right brain orientation and occupational status are all likely to be factors affecting our competence in manipulating a PC, let alone interactive multimedia. These factors become doubly significant when they affect those who mediate access to learners. The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals' report Universities and Communities, the subject of a recent conference, scarcely mentioned electronic communications as a strategic resource in regional economic development and yet its author, John Goddard, is a leading authority in this field and his university, Newcastle, initiated Northern Informatics, a company limited by guarantee bringing together the North-east region's colleges, universities, TECs, communications companies and other public and private sector organisations in a partnership designed to improve "the social, economic and business wellbeing of the Northern Region by the use of advanced technology and applications in information provision".
Models such as these, often driven by communications companies, are an increasingly common feature of the electronic learning landscape in the United States.
They offer the advantage of spreading the reach and cost of infrastructure development and use but require careful planning and regulation to ensure that access priorities are maintained.
The US department of commerce's Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program had a 1995 appropriation of $64 million for local partnership projects in education and other public service areas which met stringent access and intellectual property rights criteria.
The first tier of projects are now funded. The key feature distinguishing them from corresponding UK initiatives is their cross sectorality and the emphasis placed on universality of service. The Government policy of framing telecoms competition at local level makes the UK an especially fertile ground for initiatives like these. The UK's size and constitution also equips it better than the US for concerted action at national level. Some of the equity issues raised here are addressed in the DFE consultation paper and the JISC issues paper. The DTI's Multimedia Group is a recognition of the need for a multilateral approach to policy-making. The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education is developing a project aimed at the particular needs of socially excluded groups.
There is still much ground to be covered here. The Association of University Teachers' new report: Higher Education Preparing for the 21st Century, makes no mention of teaching and learning technology though its impact on employment patterns is likely to be significant.
In the US, electronic campuses package conventional university courses and deliver them by satellite to a growing international market, recruiting academics on short-term contracts with strict performance criteria.
The scope for negotiating favourable telecoms tariffs, acknowledged in the DFE paper, is scarcely tapped. JANET and SuperJANET already operate on a favourable rate from BT, according to Malcom Read, JISC secretary. But the contract ends in 1997.
Oftel, with a brief for consumer affairs, has advisory committees on telecoms for small businesses and elderly and disabled people but none for education. If our post-school and learning goals are to be achieved without further disenfranchisement of socially excluded groups there is a pressing need to implement the equity principle in all areas of electronic communication relevant to learning.
This calls for concerted, cross sectoral action at local and national level between institutional providers, the communications industries and other potential beneficiaries in the private, public and voluntary sectors.
To be effective this action must be based on a careful analysis of needs and resources leading to an informed awareness by both the providers and consumers of post-school education of the technology's potential and the means of realising it.
Keith Yeomans is an independent consultant in electronic communications strategy specialising in education and public service.
Copies of his report may be requested by fax: 01795 539663 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org