April 30, 2004

E-learning has had a bad press since the last of these supplements was published in November. Most obviously, the £62 million e-Universities project (UKeU) is to be “restructured” after enrolling only 900 students. But there have been other, less dramatic rumblings, including criticism in Australia of the relatively modest level of activity undertaken by the Universitas 21 global network.

As the Higher Education Funding Council for England acknowledged in announcing the demise of UKeU in its original form, the project faced difficult market conditions. Worldwide economic downturn prevented it from raising the matching funding that was a condition of sustained public support, and international demand for e-learning has been much less than predicted when the go-ahead was given four years ago.

There may still be a need for some coordination of universities’ online export efforts, not least in developing existing initiatives such as the e-China project in teacher training. But partnerships such as Liverpool University’s with Sylvan Learning Systems, the American online education specialist, suggest that universities with serious ambitions in this field will prefer to go their own way, or to join the growing list of independent international networks. This supplement demonstrates that smaller-scale e-learning projects are still thriving. Twente University, in the Netherlands, for example, has put down a marker by becoming Europe’s first wireless campus. Other imaginative programmes have been running at Birmingham, Brunel, Middlesex and Strathclyde universities, among many more. Such is the spread of virtual learning environments (VLEs) that it would be almost unthinkable for a university to provide new student accommodation without online access. The main debate surrounding VLEs is no longer whether they are necessary, but how they should operate.

That is not to pretend that mistakes are unknown: e-learning is still in its infancy and there is bound to be variation in quality. As a senior college administrator who had trawled the market for a new system remarked this month, productive VLEs must be user-friendly. Tom Soron of Queen Elizabeth College Darlington said: “Because of their complexity, most VLEs actually discourage staff and student use, and all too often become expensive white elephants.”

The same used to be said of computers in schools, however. In many classrooms, expensive hardware would sit virtually unused in a corner because staff lacked the confidence to use it effectively. Pupils were often more proficient than their teachers. Thanks to improved training and the availability of suitable software, this is now much less frequently the case.

Higher education users - whether staff or students - generally did not have the same learning curve, but the costs associated with e-learning naturally leave doubters to be won over. In the new era of top-up fees, however, students’ expectations may be such that universities and colleges will have little option but to invest.

ICT in Higher Education, Issue No. 3
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