Perfect platform for progress

February 7, 2003

The launch of the UK e-university last month provides every British university with a framework on which to offer online courses. Alison Goddard looks at the preparations to ensure the venture works for students at home and abroad

In a few weeks, the first students to enrol through the UK e-university will log on to their studies. Three years after the government announced it was spending £62 million on the venture, some 300 to 400 people have signed up to online postgraduate courses costing up to £9,250.

The e-university - properly titled UK eUniversities Worldwide - was established as a central company to develop a common e-learning platform for all universities. In principle, any British university can use this platform to offer online courses.

So far, four institutions have developed the three courses launching next month, with a further six committed to extending the portfolio in the coming months. Many more are interested in using the e-university to provide round-the-clock learning support for their students.

Developing the framework to support the e-university, including the vast range of tasks performed by teams of academics and administrators, has been - and continues to be - a gargantuan task that has cost £20 million so far.

The e-university platform was built specifically to meet the needs of remote adult learners at university level. It is the first such platform designed exclusively for distance learning. Computer specialists - including staff from Sun Microsystems, a partner in the e-university - had to work out how to enrol students remotely, deliver learning opportunities, monitor students' progress, collect tuition fees, give students electronic access to the right libraries, compile their records, encourage students to submit work for assessment, mark the work, moderate the results and a host of other tasks involved with running online courses.

Sun, the lead architect developing the technical platform for the programme, has provided the system hardware, the learning management system and consultancy, as well as a significant amount of software technology in a deal worth £5.6 million. The e-university has also worked with Fujitsu and Epic, a developer of internet-based learning solutions in Brighton.

It was crucial to get the right interface between the student and the university. John Beaumont, chief executive of UK eUniversities, explains:

"We put a lot of emphasis on having a good interface. Students learn in a variety of different ways, and the key part of the interface design is providing mapping to students of what the course is, how it is structured and how it fits together. Starting at the beginning and working through to the end is not how students learn."

Earlier research has shown that creating a welcoming learning community is vital to students' online success and that they work best in small tutorial groups, where they can interact and contribute their own experiences.

Jonathan Darby, UK eUniversities' chief architect, maintains: "The courses should run equally well with 30, 300 or 3,000 students. There might be a large number of students simultaneously, but the experience of the student will be of a small learning community."

One aspect of the e-university not previously tackled is the role of teamwork in developing and delivering courses. Computer specialists have developed a platform that allows a person to work on one aspect of a course and then sign it off, at which point it will become available to the next person who needs to develop it. Students are able to access information held in different areas simultaneously - so that, for example, they can consult text during a tutorial.

Both students and tutors are scrutinised. Darby says: "We monitor the frequency with which students log on - and report any interruption to their tutor - and the response times of tutors, to identify if any need chasing."

The process will identify those tutors who respond promptly to student queries - and those who do not. Potentially, academics who prove too slow could be replaced.

But tutors will not be obliged to provide instantaneous responses since research into online learning communities has found that students like having a personal tutor and, as Darby explains, "they would prefer to have a response from their tutor a day late than an instant answer from someone they don't know".

The e-university will handle the whole process of assessment, including marking and issuing results, and its administrative roles are being integrated. Students enrolled on courses will count as students of the university that devised the course, and their records will be matched so that they have access to the libraries of the institutions where they are studying. Information will be passed to the individual universities, to enable them to complete their returns to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

This will all be done on a Unix-based system using open-source code and, where possible, existing packages. The technology is based on Sun's Enterprise servers, Vignette content management system, iPlanet internet software and Java technology.

The platform has been designed to conform to international standards for the importing and exporting of material between systems, so that universities can use courses developed with the e-university on other platforms.

www.ukeu.com

THE VITAL STATISTICS

  • Every UK university, except St Andrews, is a member of the e-university.
  • Courses are developed by one or more universities in conjunction with the e-university. Students receive their qualifications from the enrolling institution.
  • Three courses are being offered from next month. Cambridge and the Open University will offer a postgraduate certificate in learning in the connected economy for £2,600, York will offer a masters degree in public policy and management for £9,000, and Sheffield Hallam will offer a masters in IT and management for £9,250.
  • Leeds and Manchester will offer a masters in bioinformatics from October.
  • Ulster will deliver five postgraduate courses in biomedical sciences and environmental management from January 2004. Future plans include a deal with the UK Healthcare Education Partnership comprising the Royal College of Nursing, City, Leicester and Ulster.
  • Most students will be based overseas. The e-university is targeting Malaysia, Brazil, Hong Kong and China and wants to extend into the Middle East.
  • Initially, the university will offer postgrad courses, concentrating on business and management, health, science and technology, environment, English language, law and teacher training.
  • The e-university is establishing a research centre for e-learning technologies, among other topics. Its director is Robin Mason of the Open University Institute of Educational Technology.

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