Blitzing the glitz

May 16, 2003

A no-nonsense approach to distance learning has proved a hit in the Americas. Stephen Phillips reports from San Francisco.

Recalibrating expectations of e-learning in the US following dotcom fever has proved painful. Heady prognostications about the internet's capacity to collapse distance, democratise higher education access and act as a global knowledge vector look like hot air given the carnage among high-profile university e-learning ventures.

In March, Columbia University cut its losses on Fathom.com, having run up a $25 million (£15.5 million) investment tab on the online education portal. The New York-based venture was perhaps the last vestige of the brash 1990s when a slew of universities tried to cash in on their intellectual capital to corner the nascent e-learning market. The universities of New York, Cornell, Temple and the University of Maryland University College have folded commercial internet education arms or scaled back ambitions amid poor enrolment and tough economic conditions.

Fathom was possibly the boldest gamble. Columbia assembled a consortium of elite Anglo-American academic and cultural institutions, including the London School of Economics and the universities of Chicago and Michigan, to contribute original course material. Executives said 65,000 people signed up, but would not divulge the number of  paying customers.

Despite such casualties, many lower-key ventures are quietly making a go of online education based on more measured appraisal of its utility and hard-won insights into where it fits into traditional offerings.

Denver's Regis University counts 1,800 online MBA students, while the University of Phoenix has 45,000 candidates enrolled on its online vocational qualifications and bachelors degree courses. Shunning the glitzy interface of its erstwhile rivals, the Phoenix Online formula is to keep it simple with text and rudimentary graphics, instead of multimedia bells and whistles that many internet users lack the bandwidth to run.

Unlike so-called "spam diplomas" available online for no more than $200, the genuine article does not come cheap. A Regis MBA can cost $25,000, but this is probably cheaper than attending a business school and there is no accompanying loss of wages.

The US Army's online learning programme, eArmyU, is free for members of the US military and already has some 30,500 soldiers enrolled. They are kitted out with laptops that have access to the internet and a digital library.

One increasingly popular e-learning model is a programme that mingles online with classroom time. Duke University's Fuqua School of Business has 709 students for its global executive MBA programme, which provides a steady diet of internet modules with classroom sessions convened on various continents.

Many top-tier US universities have proved reticent about directly offering online qualifications for fear of diluting their offline cachet. This has led to off-brands such as Cardean University, the degree-granting institution formed by UNext, a virtual MBA academy originally backed by Stanford, Columbia, Chicago, Carnegie Mellon and LSE. But UNext has struggled, drastically cutting staff to pare overheads.

E-learning has proved popular with businesses. Japanese car maker Toyota's booming US division expects to cut training expenses by $11.9 million from its deployment of Vuepoint Learning System's online package.

Perhaps the most interesting e-learning initiative afoot, though, eschews commercial considerations altogether. Under a $13 million programme dubbed OpenCourseWare, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology plans on making all its course materials freely available online over the next decade. Staff say the website will showcase world-class pedagogy for educators elsewhere to foster interdisciplinary collaboration. It will also serve as a recruitment tool, they hope, amid cut-throat competition for the best graduate students and faculty members, allowing prospective applicants to familiarise themselves with MIT curricula.

Jon Paul Potts, OpenCourseWare communications manager,  denies that MIT is cannibalising its campus offerings, pointing out that OpenCourseWare is not peddling online degrees, only posting academic content. He says the fourth highest number of international hits have been recorded from Brazil - beating Britain and other developed nations.

Indeed, distance learning has a heritage in Central and South America, notes Larry Wolff, education adviser to the Inter-American Development Bank, a regional branch of the World Bank that funds e-learning initiatives in the continent.

Mexico's Telesecondaria has been broadcasting TV lessons to remote secondary schools for 30 years and Brazil's Telecourso does the same. Radio has plugged the learning gap in remote parts of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.

Building on this foundation, Latin America's leading online players are Mexico's Instituto Tecnologico de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM) and the Instituto Tecnologico Superior (Tecsup) of Peru.

Private ITESM has been offering online courses since the late 1990s in conjunction with live televised lectures under the aegis of its Universidad Virtual, which by 2001 had 80,000 students.

Tecsup, founded by a cadre of Peruvian industrialists in 1982 to offer vocational training, rolled out online operations in 1999.

Cross-border recognition of qualifications and limited internet penetration are wrinkles to be ironed out. But stiff competition for university places, plus less than 5 per cent college participation across the 175 million Brazilian populace, suggests there is demand to be tapped by intelligently pitched online education offerings - in Brazil, at least.

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