E-learning launch

October 31, 2003

The UK is building a critical mass in e-learning and the UKeU is fuelling this drive with the appointment of four researchers at its eLearning Research Centre, writes Pat Leon.

The UKeU eLearning Research Centre is looking for four research assistants or fellows to start work immediately. The centre opened last month in three locations -London, Southampton and Manchester universities- with the appointment of a trio of co-directors.

The centre is a joint venture between UKeU, the government-backed company set up to provide online degrees from UK universities to students worldwide, and the universities of Southampton and Manchester. It is financed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Co-director Jim Petch, head of distributed learning at Manchester, which will take two of the posts, says UKeU programmes will serve as case study material but not exclusively. "Our audience is the UK higher education sector. We'll disseminate our results there and try to align our research work with what is happening in Manchester, Southampton and elsewhere."

The thrust behind Manchester's research agenda, he says, is recognition of gaps in thinking about e-learning strategies and the need for higher education institutions to take a business-like approach. "E-learning is much more complicated than traditional teaching and learning. It is a team effort and takes a lot more people and planning. We have to be systematic and draw on models from the worlds of business and software development."

Manchester, which is offering two three-year contracts, expects the successful applicants to look at the business lifecycle of an e-learning programme. "It is not simply the technology but the vision, planning, development and maintenance," Mr Petch says.

Researchers will also investigate how to evaluate and assess the quality of e-learning programmes. "If the only evaluation is what students experience online, we are just looking at outcomes and are more likely to change content, whereas the problem might be to do with design or the way digital resources are collected."

Southampton is concentrating on the "softer" side of e-learning, including cultural, language and discipline differences and whether choice of technology drives learning.

Co-director Grainne Conole, who is chair of educational innovation, says that appointees would join a growing community of researchers. "Learning technology is an emerging research field. We are beginning to see differences between schools of thought and approaches. There has been a growth of research centres, institutes, journals and dedicated conferences," she says.

"We are building a critical mass in the UK. People are thinking about how teaching and e-learning strategies integrate with, for example, estates strategy. A big part of the new centre's remit will be to build our research credibility and to ease tensions between policy-makers and practitioners."

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