E-learning could be key to teaching the expanding numbers of students entering higher education. Pat Leon meets the woman charged with developing the government’s strategy
Diana Laurillard sits and sips coffee in her Caxton House office in St James’s, London. She is not often this still. Since the government launched its draft e-learning strategy in July, Laurillard has been on the road giving lectures and consulting on the proposals.
Laurillard heads the e-learning strategy unit at the Department for Education and Skills and is the brains behind the draft. Although technically a civil servant, she occupies an ambiguous position, bestriding the world of academia and public service. She has just finished the first year of a three-year secondment from the Open University, where she was pro vice-chancellor with responsibility for learning technologies and teaching. She is also author of the groundbreaking book Rethinking University Teaching .
Laurillard is a popular and respected figure in academia, and education secretary Charles Clarke paid tribute to her for the report Towards a Unified E-learning Strategy at its launch. “Luckily, I am going with the grain, in that we have a secretary of state who is eager and leading the vision for e-learning,” she says.
She finds life at the DFES not dissimilar to that at the OU. “Both are large organisations and bureaucracies. Both have deeply committed public servants who are open and willing to discuss and debate,” she says. The difference is that the politics is “much closer”.
But such duality of interests is nothing new to Laurillard. She was born into what she calls “an aspirant lower middle-class” family in Aylesbury, and her first love was mathematics. “There was no such thing as a ‘pure maths’ university degree - physics was always involved and I hated it. Luckily, Sussex University was trying to break the barriers between arts and science and had launched a philosophy and maths degree. I applied and got in.”
The two disciplines have stood her in good stead as an education technologist. “The maths means I always feel at home in sciences, and the philosophy gives me a basis to hold my own in the humanities,” she says. In 1969, she moved to the London School of Economics to study the philosophy of mathematics, only to find that her tutor had switched his interests to the philosophy of physics. She dropped out and took a research assistant post at South Bank University, where she began experimenting with maths teaching after realising that her students, despite having an A level in the subject, “had no feel for maths”. “My first use of computers was to pirate OU maths television programmes and use the computer graphics,” she says. That early experimentation was the start of a research odyssey through various institutions into how students learn - and whether technology could aid that process. “Thirty years on, the question is still ‘what does technology offer to learning?’” she says.
From 1974 to 1981, she worked at the Institute for Educational Technology at Surrey University before moving to the OU. She also started a family; her daughters with Brian Butterworth, professor of cognitive neuropsychology at University College London, are now 19 and 16-year-old students.
Laurillard is the first to admit that, despite the advances, technology has not produced the quantum leap in improving pedagogy and still focuses on presentation of content rather than ensuring that students are fully engaged and learning. “We are catching up on what technology is offering, but not challenging it. We need more research, and recognition of that by funding and research councils and the research assessment exercise.”
The big barrier for university teachers, she says, is that e-learning requires different thinking. “It is not just telling the story of a subject that they love. They have to engage the student in active exploration.” Student expansion is a main driver of her e-learning proposals. “We cannot grow the teaching workforce at the same rate. Therefore, we have to use technology to improve the gearing ratio between teachers and learners to free time for coaching and mentoring.” She believes coordinated national procurement of hardware and software is one way - “that’s why open source and open standards are so important”. But she notes: “Universities are used to being autonomous and independent. They are traditionally impermeable. New technology requires permeable institutions. That means change.”