The perception that online learning is really e-commerce is holding back public-sector development of e-education, a new Commonwealth of Learning report has said.
"Virtual education" is expected to make a profit or at least break even. It is seen as an add-on to mainstream public-sector education models, says report editor Glen Farrell in The Changing Faces of Virtual Education .
"As a result, virtual education is, by and large, not getting the attention it should be from policymakers," he says.
According to Dr Farrell, the danger is that the private sector will focus on profitable courses, leaving less lucrative offerings to the public sector, and rendering it unable to cross-subsidise.
He says the concentration of online offerings in business and technology for the staff training market shows that many ventures were after only the "low-hanging fruit".
The report also states that developing countries are fast being left behind in the online education race because of a lack of communications infrastructure and investment.
According to the document, emerging trends are likely to bring about radical changes to the way we think about traditional concepts such as courses, awards and teaching and learning processes.
These "macro developments" will include new venues for learning, the use of "learning objects" to define and store content, new organisational models, better support services for online learners and new quality assurance models.
Despite the attention online learning has drawn in recent years, Farrell points out that there are still very few examples of "pure" virtual education, where all aspects of teaching and learning use technology of some sort.
"Most of the activity is still occurring around the edges of institutions, particularly in the public sector," he says.
However, the macro developments described in the report stand to significantly alter this situation in the future.
The University of Washington and Learning Network have launched 12 free online "quick courses" .
The non-credit courses, which are based on full-length, college-level classes taught online by the university, are entirely web-based and designed for self-study at the student's own pace. Each includes an introduction, two to five lessons, short multiple-choice quizzes and booklists for recommended reading.