Alison Wolf

August 22, 2003

...and look at porn without the benefit of a publicly funded campaign'

With all the breathless excitement of a cheerleader, the government is relentlessly plugging e-learning. Why?

I have just enjoyed a week of liberation. I was out of the office, my old laptop packed up. So I couldn't reply to emails, couldn't fill in grades and comments on online forms, and certainly couldn't spend hours tracking changes onto students' draft assignments. Instead I read (in hard copy) Towards a Unified e-Learning Strategy , the Department for Education and Skills oeuvre that Charles Clarke was recently talking up in the pages of The THES .

A lot of this hails from the all-purpose bullet-point database from which DFES documents seem to be assembled: the combination of vacuity, breathlessness and cheerleading reminds one of the Little Red Book. "The whole of the education and training workforce must be fully engaged in order to lead change and deliver effective e-learning," we learn. That way we can all experience its "fantastic excitement", with more people "achieving their personal goals as self-directed lifelong learners" as part of a "transformational programme".

Now that the dotcom bubble has burst, governments are the last true believers in the ability of information technology to do absolutely anything more efficiently than ever before. But this is no longer an infant industry; computers are part of the woodwork in schools and universities.

If we persist in doing some things with them, and not others, there are probably good reasons, which this document makes no attempt to analyse. If digital technologies really offered guaranteed ways to save money and time while improving "all our learning and teaching processes" wouldn't we have noticed?

In higher education we haven't needed mass rallies to convince us of the usefulness of emails. We send articles and reports back and forth constantly to co-authors and colleagues; students send us queries, outlines and drafts at any time of the day and night in the hope of a rapid response. We search with Yahoo and Google; we download and print off by the ream. Outside work, things that people want to do online are getting done en masse - millions of our fellow citizens are logging on to chatrooms, finding old school friends, buying cheap air tickets and looking at porn without the benefit of a publicly funded campaign. Some people may still find computers intimidating, but as any college principal can tell you, they don't include anyone young.

And yet, apparently, e-learning isn't delivering. It isn't providing economies of scale. True. As teachers and learners we aren't constantly innovating. Also true. In spite of previous and expensive initiatives, your average faculty certainly doesn't see many "virtual learning worlds", or lecturers devoting hours to "customising digital learning resources". Nor should one expect it.

Computers allow us to do some things in completely new ways. They have changed the way we draft and write. They are transforming, dramatically, what architects can build. But in the most fundamental way, e-learning is just like book-learning: what we can get from it depends on what other people put in. If we download something from the web, then someone posted it there. If we use software, a large number of people created it. And people - especially educated people - are also very expensive. So there will be only a certain number of occasions when investing their time makes sense.

University courses very rarely meet that requirement. By their essence, they mutate constantly as research advances and faculty interests and expertise change. Of course it helps students if they can print off your lecture notes: even better if they download those of some efficient mid-western professors as well. But the DFES is in love with "leading-edge technologies", not prose online. How many courses are long-lived enough to justify the people hours and, therefore, the huge costs, of that type of exercise? Is playing with design tools what students want their lecturers to be doing?

The DFES also gets very excited about "personalised learning support".

Personalised involves a person - not the student but whoever gives the advice, or comments on work, or actually teaches something. For this to be available online, day and night, offering "seamless transition to the next stage of learning" (yes, really), we would presumably all have to be sitting there day and night as well. This isn't quite my idea of "empowering" teachers.

The government is, of course, keen to hear my views (though not, perhaps, in this non-interactive form). However, we've all learnt how easily IT lets you churn things out, with just a few small changes. So I could perhaps paste this column into their reply spaces. Would that be "quality at scale"?

Alison Wolf is professor of education at the Institute of Education, London.

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