October 22, 2004

To many observers, the reason that e-learning has not made more inroads into the traditional higher education market lies in the impersonal nature of the process. Students are more comfortable with the face-to-face interaction they had at school, even if in reality this is a luxury in many universities. But an international meeting in the Netherlands this week is turning that proposition on its head. The European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU) is discussing the “mass individualisation of higher education” through e-learning.

The selling point of the open universities and distance-teaching units meeting near Maastricht is that they are the ones offering the personal touch. In some of the countries represented, staffing levels in conventional universities are such that students have little contact with the academics delivering courses. Distance teaching can provide more direct access, as well as bringing higher education to areas too remote to support a conventional institution. Some of the European Union’s accession countries, in particular, are pinning a lot of hope on distance operations to extend access to higher education. There already is the beginning of an e-learning version of the Bologna Process, encouraging more international collaboration. Thorny issues such as the practicalities of cross-border quality assurance are being addressed and learning regions identified to ensure that courses are socially and economically relevant to the target audience.

By taking advantage of the opportunity for “virtual mobility”, students can experience different styles of learning and take subjects that may not be available at first hand. In time, there may be e-learning components to European mobility programmes such as Erasmus and Tempus. But international e-learning operations are inevitably sensitive. It was the perceived threat posed by high-profile US institutions that led to the ill-fated UK e-University, and the same insecurity may be felt in some continental countries if universities fear a more prestigious foreign competitor moving in on their territory. Organisations such as the EADTU will have an important role to play in brokering positive partnerships.

As Martin Weller rightly suggests (page 4), the failure of the UK e-University gives a misleading impression of the progress made in this area. Conventional universities and colleges are stepping up their investment in learning technologies and plenty of good judges believe that eventually the private sector will become a force in higher education, with e-learning at its core.

Inevitably, US universities are leading the way. Duke University’s decision to supply new students with pre-loaded iPods (page 6) may be more than most of its rivals can afford, but it is a straw in the wind. Some British universities have considered making laptops part of the student package when top-up fees come in. This supplement looks at a number of areas in which universities are investing - from electronic journals (page 6) to WebCT (page 8). The point is not so much that a bidding war is breaking out, rather that universities are recognising the growing technological sophistication of their students as they approach the higher education market.

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