The ball's rolling but it needs a little push

May 16, 2003

Educators must do more to convince students and governments around the world that e-learning is the way forward, says John Beaumont.

E-learning is no panacea for all unsatisfied educational needs but, if implemented properly, it may satisfy many of them. After a false start, e-learning can transform post-secondary education delivery in the medium term for the better. It can enhance access, lower costs and improve quality.

Today, however, e-learning deservedly has a poor reputation. Technology usually receives the blame, but the real reasons are poor instructional design and content production and/or insufficient service support. E-learning is a risky venture with large upfront investments, and many past attempts to "manage" costs and resource inputs harmed students' learning experiences.

Around the world, there is recognition that learning and skills are fundamental to improving countries' and companies' growth - sustainable socio-economic, civilised development and competitive advantage.

Higher education is central to lifelong learning. Greater interaction is likely between universities and the corporate world, including the public sector. Each will need to understand what drives the other. E-learning is a service, not a product and it is therefore inappropriate to supply it if there is no demand.

E-learning can, however, address new markets. Higher education itself needs to be much more market-led. But e-learning is no simple appendage to more conventional deliveries of education. By 2005, it is forecast that online learning will be the most widely used web application. Individuals and organisations are attracted by its cost-effectiveness and flexibility.

While there is a variety of models to measure return on investment for training and development in organisations, such analyses are generally poorly implemented in practice. There must be an upfront view of objectives and performance measurement over time. This will be easier when e-learning environments have in-built testing, tracking and recording functionality.

The customer must be king. The learning experience must be student-centric. Many e-learning platforms are really non-scaleable production and distribution systems that have been designed to assist the suppliers, the academics. For a student, interactivity is a prime dimension of a successful learning environment. They want support from and dialogue with tutors and peers. The internet provides unparalleled potential for interactivity.

One key difference between classroom learning and e-learning is that, like other forms of distance learning, e-learning permits a separation between creation of content, presentation of content and support for the learners. The internet allows the separation of these tasks. This means, potentially, that considerable flexibility and economies of scale are possible regarding courseware distribution.

E-learning should not, and need not, provide a second-best learning experience compared with face-to-face learning. The media has strengths and weaknesses. If e-courseware is designed to use the strengths of the new technology, then a wholly new form of quality learning is feasible, potentially better than traditional ways.

E-learning designers, however, must re-examine the pedagogic principles on which their courses are founded to effectively exploit the evolving technology and applications.

From a student's perspective, there are several key pedagogic principles that should be followed, including: self-directed learning; interactive participation and problem-solving; practice and trying things out; appropriate use of media, provision of animation, visualisation and simulation; reflection; retrieval at a later date; collaborative learning; and assessment and learning feedback, with facilitation and modification of courseware delivery accordingly.

It is a surprise, therefore, that the focus of attention in universities has been on technology platforms, rather than pedagogic issues and the range of 24/7 services and support infrastructure. These are the real differentiators behind the quality of a student's learning experience.

E-learning can be effective at scale only if capability and capacity are addressed explicitly - and there are many different paths to success for an individual university. The nature and scale of a university's administration and support must be reviewed. The operational requirements will vary according to university strategies.

Quality management has been a problem with distance learning. Overseas governments respond differently to foreign providers wanting to service e-learning students locally. Urgent work needs to be done to service the remote adult learner with demonstrable quality assurance. Until this is completed, many countries will understandably be concerned and use regulation as an entry barrier.

E-learning must, and will, evolve. At this stage, it is difficult to map the trajectories, but it is likely that they will be characterised by integration and convergence of pedagogy, content, functionality and service. The role of universities is obviously key.

John Beaumont is chief executive officer, UK eUniversities Worldwide.

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