Evolution not an e-revolution

May 18, 2001

Online learning has not replaced traditional styles of distance education, but Sir John Daniel believes it still has the potential to shake things up

During last year's dotcom frenzy, there was a mismatch between rhetoric and reality. Within the Open University, I observed that the internet was being steadily integrated into our teaching, learning and administrative systems. Every month, 5,000 more students began communicating with us online. The OU was taking advantage of a new technology in an evolutionary way, as it had done several times before.

Yet outside the university, as the year 2000 dawned, the watchword was revolution. E-learning, the gurus told us, repudiated all previous approaches to education. From then on, the computer screen would be the only medium for learning. "Legacy distance learning", as practised by the OU, would follow classrooms and campuses to the junkyard of obsolete teaching models. The clash of expectations reached a climax when an aggressive American dotcom, whose pressing embrace we were trying politely to resist, threatened to buy the OU if we would not partner with them.

By the middle of 2000, the aggressive dotcom was itself put up for sale, the Nasdaq index began its slide and a more sober assessment of online learning became possible. The educational dotcoms that had committed themselves to operating solely online began to admit that other learning media - even ancient technologies such as books - had a place in their systems.

This tallies with what we hear from OU students. They love the opportunities for communication with tutors and fellow students that the internet provides. They like the facilities for making administrative transactions online. But they do not want to study exclusively online. "If you want me to read a book, give me the book" seems to be a universal view.

However, the dotcom frenzy has changed our vocabulary. The term online learning (less frequently e-learning) was introduced to describe learning from a computer screen. It became - and remains - the fashionable term for all forms of distance learning. This was confusing at first, but since distance education has always suffered from shifting nomenclature, it seems sensible to adopt the name until fashion changes again.

In today's busy distance learning market, where a multitude of providers compete for business, I am happy to reclassify the OU as a leading online university. The growth of online learning has coincided with a resurgence of for-profit educational institutions, which has added to the confusion. This coincidence of timing has led various bodies, such as those representing university teachers in the United States, to assume a natural link between online learning and for-profit education and to campaign against both. In fact, there is no natural link. For-profit enterprises - good, bad and indifferent - have been active in distance learning ever since it was called correspondence education, but they have offered classroom instruction for even longer and on a larger scale.

The phenomenon is that many public institutions are approaching online learning with for-profit motives, either by offering online learning programmes to new groups of students for higher fees or by hoping to generate substantial funds from the sale of their electronic courseware to other institutions in the e-learning market. I have long doubted whether these expectations have a sound basis, largely because I observe hundreds of institutions planning to sell into this market but almost none expecting to buy. Can a market emerge in such circumstances?

The likelihood of a lucrative market developing in web-based courseware has now been reduced greatly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's recent announcement that it will make all its electronic course material available for free. This parallels a proposal I made earlier this year to the OU council: that we adopt for our electronic courseware the open-source approach that is gaining ground in the software industry. The open-source software movement began in universities and is highly compatible with the academic principles that knowledge should be widely published and that the tools for manipulating knowledge should be made available to all.

I hope that the MIT announcement will give impetus and respectability to an open-source movement for courseware. Good distance-learning providers believe that the value they offer to students lies not primarily in their courseware but in the academic support they provide, the formative and summative assessments through which they help students learn, and the awards through which they certify student achievement. If their belief is grounded, then making courseware freely available should not erode the financial base of these institutions. What it will do is to increase the quality and quantity of electronic courseware as materials are refined, versioned and adapted by academics around the world and then made freely available in these new formats.

Wearing my new hat as head of the education sector at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, I see the trend towards open-source courseware as extremely helpful to institutions in the developing world. Good distance-learning material, whether delivered on the web or through other media, is expensive to develop. It would be tragic if, through excessive royalties for its use, courseware became another area where there is a net flow of wealth from the poor world to the rich world. Open-source courseware will help to bridge the digital divide and bring the day closer when all the world's population can exercise their human right to an education.

Will the for-profit institutions suffer if the move to open-source courseware takes hold? I doubt it. The strength of the good for-profit providers, both in classroom and distance learning, lies less in the quality of their teaching and learning material than in their efficient and effective support to students. They put students first in a way that public institutions too often do not. The increasing competition to put students at the centre of institutional concern will be a healthy feature of the online learning market.

In short, although the development of online learning is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, its potential to shake up higher education should not be underestimated.

Sir John Daniel has been vice-chancellor of the Open University for the past 11 years. He becomes assistant director-general for education at Unesco in July.

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