Eyeing up the future

February 7, 2003

Do you have the leadership vision to take your institution forward into the knowledge economy? Steve Molyneux assesses the positions taken by the various players in the field and says the time has come to grasp the nettle

Internet-based distance learning, or e-learning, has become a topic of much debate across academia and the government in recent years, and should be on the agenda of every academic and vice-chancellor.

Over the past five years there has been a mad rush by private companies, government agencies and institutions to develop online courses, virtual campuses, education portals and courseware. So why this fervour for online education?

John Chambers, chief executive of IT company Cisco Systems, has called online education the "second wave" of internet commerce. He predicts: "The next big killer application for the internet is going to be education.

Education over the internet is going to be so big it is going to make email usage look like a rounding error."

The question is, if this is the second wave of internet commerce, are UK institutions ready for it?

In the US, private investment in online education rose from $11 million (£7 million) in 1993 to just under $1.5 billion in 2001. Wall Street analysts, accountancy firms and internet entrepreneurs routinely tout the commercial potential of online education. This marketplace is expected to become increasingly global as the digitisation of education enables providers to reach previously isolated, local markets.

US universities have responded to the spectre of greater competition from the private sector and among themselves by launching their own online courses and virtual universities, by forming coalitions with other universities or by forming partnerships with corporations. For example, the University of California, at Berkeley has granted AOL the worldwide rights to market, license, distribute and promote a number of its online courses.

Elite universities and professional schools have been scrambling to "leverage their brands" and to organise their own systems of online education. Administrators, fearing that they will be left behind, are becoming dealmakers, and buzz phrases such as "tapping intellectual capital" echo from the Stanford Quad to Harvard Square. Over the past three years, Ivy League schools have developed some of the most aggressively marketed and sophisticated examples of commercial online education.

So where does this leave the UK? Are its universities and colleges up to competing in a global village? Some institutions lack vision of leadership as we move to the "knowledge" economy. Many efforts in e-learning are led by staff at a departmental level, who are isolated from mainstream initiatives. How many institutions include e-learning, and their commitment to it, in their mission statements? Very few, I would guess.

Yet one only has to analyse the e-learning vendors market to see how many leading UK systems have been developed by UK institutions. Many readers will see UK eUniversities as a step forward, but its business proposition is still unconvincing.

There are many positions, constituencies and players involved in the online education debate. Below is an overview of three of the main positions: the administrative position, the corporate position and the "faculty resistance" position. While an oversimplification, it identifies some broad tendencies within the field of debate.

* The administrative position: Vendors of e-learning solutions have tended in recent years to focus on how online education can be used to increase student admissions, keep up with technological advancements and manage costs. Many vendors compare the costs of traditional education with those of online education and discuss how "expensive overheads" - such as human resources, security, counselling and career services, facilities and management and utilities - can be "unbundled" from the educational product via online education.

While "visionaries" embrace such changes, many administrators are less sanguine about them. Often, they harbour reservations about jumping on the e-learning bandwagon, but worry that if they don't act fast their institution will be left behind, their students and their resources snapped up by competitors and their star staff headhunted by rivals. Many institutions' forays into online education are motivated partly by concerns about competition - and so they should be. If other institutions capture this space, they will start to cherry-pick the best faculty members.

* The corporate position: Futurists such as Nicholas Negroponte and companies such as Microsoft and Cisco argue that online education will play a revolutionary role in higher education. They predict this will lead to the "corporatisation" of the university, and that this is a good thing. I agree that the digitisation of the university would bring about a leaner, flatter, more flexible and efficient institution that would more closely resemble the structure of the modern corporation.

Some take this argument further and make claims about the impending collapse of the traditional university. Management guru Peter Drucker articulated a version of this position several years ago: "Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won't survive.

"Do you realise that the cost of higher education has risen as fast as the cost of healthcare? Such totally uncontrollable expenditures, without any visible improvement in either the content or the quality of education, means that the system is rapidly becoming untenable. Higher education is in deep crisis.

"Already we are beginning to deliver more lectures and classes off-campus via satellite or two-way video at a fraction of the cost. The college won't survive as a residential institution." ( Forbes , March 10 1997).

On a global scale, the corporatisation of the university and the commercialisation of higher education will accelerate in coming years. Too many educators are under the illusion that they have a choice about whether or not these changes will occur but, whether we like it or not, the type of restructuring that corporations underwent as they moved from an industrial to a knowledge economy is now happening in both further and higher education.

The most consistent message is that if we wait, the universities and colleges that could have led the transition to a new business model and could have captured a larger piece of the global marketplace will find that they have become dangerously uncompetitive, as did IBM's mainframe business in the 1980s.

* The "faculty resistance" position: Scholars such as David Noble and Cary Nelson have produced some important critiques of online education. Many focus on its potential role in the corporatisation of the university and the casualisation of academic work conditions.

Noble warns that online education may lead to "digital diploma mills": electronic sweatshops in which tutors lose control over the products of their labour and in which their work is automated, reproduced and commodified. Nelson focuses on how online education may exacerbate academic work conditions in a variety of ways. Both propose strategies of resistance that include demanding staff control over intellectual property, strengthening tenure and advancing the struggle for academic staff unionisation.

However, Noble's arguments in particular entail a withdrawal from online education rather than offering alternative models of online education.

There is little engagement with ways of contesting and reconfiguring online education that are more amenable to the interests of academics. What is needed is a different form of public intellectualism by academics, which engages sympathetic administrators and gives them an alternative to the corporate models that have dominated discussion so far.

In conclusion, if we are to compete in the global education services arena, we must move with the times. Governments worldwide are investing heavily in promoting online education as they move from the product economy to the knowledge economy.

Colleagues from across the sector should be applauded for the work they have done at their institutions, but senior managers beware - internet-based technologies are disruptive and, unless carefully and strategically managed, can have serious side-effects.

Remember what happened to the navvies with the introduction of the railways?

Steve Molyneux is director of the Learning Lab at Wolverhampton University. www.learninglab.org.uk </a> </a> www.learninglab.org.uk </a>

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