November 21, 2003

At the height of the dotcom boom, with online universities proliferating and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology making its course materials available on the web, it was easy to overestimate the impact of e-learning. Management sage Peter Drucker, for example, probably would not wish to be reminded of his prediction that campus universities would be “relics” within 30 years. “Universities won’t survive,” he said. “It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.”

Now that the e-revolution has stalled, it is fashionable to dismiss it as a costly aberration where higher education is concerned. But history is littered with false starts. The new technology’s impact may be more incremental than the pioneers expected, but its critics forget the difference it has already made to student and academic life. Research methods have been transformed and subjects brought to life for distance learners. Even the more mundane process of communication between teacher and student has improved.

Although the Open University and others have proved that entire degree courses can be delivered successfully online, few experts see this as the main direction in which e-learning is heading. There is still no substitute for personal contact in the teaching process and, even for part-time learners, the social side of undergraduate life remains important. The same may not be true, however, for professional updating and other branches of lifelong learning that are certain to assume growing importance. Hard-pressed executives and members of remote communities are just two of the groups who may be happy to turn to their computer for particular courses.

This supplement demonstrates, however, that e-learning is not an all-or-nothing activity. Bede College’s virtual field trips and the digitised collection of traditional music at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama are two examples of technology supplementing face-to-face learning. Edinburgh University is already pooling the resources used by its academics and international networks such as Universitas 21 may see such sharing spread across the globe.

So what next for e-learning? Should the government give a lead, as it did with the establishment of the UK e-universities project? That programme still has much to do to win over sceptics in academe and repay the taxpayer’s investment. Perhaps managing the rapid advances in technology is best left to individual initiative rather than central direction. Asking institutions to build e-learning into the curriculum in an arbitrary way to meet national objectives will lead only to waste and confusion.

In Charles Clarke, the government has an education secretary with a record of engagement in e-learning - a key part of his first ministerial brief was to implement Tony Blair’s promise to “wire up” every state school. The challenge for him and for Diana Laurillard, the academic-turned-civil-servant responsible for e-learning in England, is to encourage innovative use of technology that carries rich possibilities without succumbing to the temptation of micromanagement.

ICT in Higher Education No.2 index page  

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