E-learning could take off in a big way - but Europe must standardise its delivery first, says Richard Straub
Expectations of what e-learning can do have been unrealistic, leading to false starts and disappointment. Learning technologies have been overhyped in the same way as other technologies have been in the early phases of their deployment.
In the process, however, we have gained a better understanding of the effective use of e-learning and of its limitations. We have learnt about the importance of learner preferences and about cultural differences as they relate to learning and the interplay of face-to-face and technology-based methods.
Why is e-learning not taking off in our daily lives - in schools, companies and universities? Why are the numbers of people who report great experiences of e-learning still limited? Why are the best practices that we have seen emerging in many places not spreading much faster?
The reason is that we have thousands of exciting and interesting experiments that are not scalable and, in many cases, not compatible. The best practices are not reusable in environments other than those in which they have been developed.
We need the capability to share and exchange e-learning content regardless of where it has been produced and to access learning resources from wherever we may be with whatever access device we use. We need to be able to identify the best learning resources for our individual needs. These resources should be of high quality and provide content in formats ranging from simple text to advanced digital multimedia. We also need someone to support us personally if we get lost in the maze of the network and someone who can accompany our learning process and advise us which route to take and which traps to avoid. To fulfil these needs, we must create a common infrastructure and a set of common standards and rules.
We like to think about a new pedagogy, of exciting new multimedia content, virtual tutors and digital curricula. All these innovations will come to fruition on a broad basis only if we get the fundamentals in place that enable the broad-based deployment of learning technologies.
Infrastructure and content production based on open standards will provide a dramatic acceleration of e-learning development and deployment. This is vital in a market that is fragmented and lacks clear direction.
In April, 15 companies joined forces to create the eLearning Industry Group in Europe, with the support of Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for education and culture. The group aims to work in public-private partnership with the European Commission, national governments and education institutions to accelerate the deployment of e-learning in Europe.
This group emerged from the European eLearning Summit, which, in May 2001, made ten recommendations to promote e-learning in Europe. Projects to translate four of these recommendations into actions in the fields of infrastructure, content standards, the development of a viable market for content in Europe and the professional development of educators have been launched. These projects are addressing key leverage points for successful and accelerated deployment of e-learning in Europe. They will help create an environment that provides robustness, flexibility and compatibility-all of which are needed to advance the e-learning agenda in Europe.
It should be an environment in which we do not need to worry about technological issues but in which we can focus on what is important. That is, exciting learning content, engaging learning experiences, new pedagogy, individual skill needs, international learning groups and so on. Cultural diversity and new education models will thrive if common standards exist and if a healthy market for content can evolve.
There is a strong political will in Europe to influence e-learning to achieve the Lisbon summit's goal for Europe as "the most dynamic knowledge economy in the world". This will is reflected in the eEurope 2005 action plan, which highlights the development of e-learning services as one of the major modern online public services besides e-government and e-health services. The creation of an e-learning programme is another strong signal from the commission to bundle its efforts in this arena and to ensure appropriate funding for European e-learning projects.
Public-private partnerships are considered key factors for furthering the e-learning agenda in Europe. The group has the ambition to become a flagship public-private partnership for e-learning. It welcomes the participation of key stakeholders in the European e-learning market.
Richard Straub is director of eLearning Solutions, IBM Europe, Middle East and Africa and chairman of the European eLearning Industry Group.