How to avoid a pig in a poke

April 29, 2005

The UKeU did not put learners first. E-learning projects that do can succeed if they have a clear, co-ordinated strategy and national support, says John Slater

The Commons Education and Skills Select Committee report on the failure of the UK e-University, which was scrapped in 2004 after the £62 million project attracted just 900 students, is the best read of three recent major reports about e-learning.

It identifies a set of failings so large that any individual involved could show that failure was due entirely to others. Nevertheless, of the original £62 million, £50 million is a large sum to have wasted.

In 2000, it was thought that England was in danger of ignoring lucrative opportunities to provide e-learning. Funds were provided to develop a market-led set of courses and to help to prepare the UK for global competition. A few appropriate higher education institutions and the private sector would share the risk. Then came sector consultation and a predictable clamour for supply-led non-competitive “funding for all”. The shift resulted in delays, poor offerings from many institutions and soaking-wet feet in the private sector. The resulting fat pig never really went to market - but it was bought nevertheless.

A simplified explanation for the subsequent failure of UKeU is that no one had primary interest in ensuring its success. The funder withdrew suddenly, handing responsibility to the sector and control to management, which seemed keen to keep the sector, UKeU partners and learners at arm’s length. Institutions and commercial suppliers shared a desire to take money without sharing risk. Staff wanted bonuses defined in ways unrelated to having learners. The Government wanted reports of successful public-private partnership.

Thus, at key moments, there was a lack of flexibility and no proper response to changing circumstances such as the “dotbomb” collapse. Resources were used on platform development, overseas offices, authoring of high-brand materials without market input, an expensive London base and construction of models that appeared to show private-sector investment. Remaining knowledgeable people and partners disappeared.

Successful e-universities exist, such as US-based Phoenix. But their priority is learners: they focus on service and market knowledge. The UKeU’s timing was unfortunate, its markets poorly chosen and its intelligence weak.

So what lessons can universities take from the UKeU’s failure? First, they should keep models simple and align their priorities with their mainstream aims. Second, they should concentrate on learners. Third, they should be flexible in addressing the market and collaborate where sensible. Finally, they need professional staff, and they must involve the institutional hierarchy throughout.

Throughout the UK, e-learning is being incorporated into mainstream provision. There have been many significant developments in assessment, organisation, support, collaborative working, delivery models and other areas. Long gestation of expensive “page-turning” materials is less important as new learner-centred paradigms become more widely rediscovered and adopted. Quick deployment, rapid return and continual review are crucial for developments that occur normally in departments with support from central units. Much is “blended learning”, where e-learning works alongside traditional pedagogies for the benefit of learners.

There are sometimes intractable problems in integrating ring-fenced, project-based, externally funded uneconomic systems into the local environment.

Institutions need to bring together local practitioners, researchers and resource controllers to plan use within an overall framework that is informed by national infrastructure, advice and help.

This is where the other two documents come in. The e-learning strategy of the Department for Education and Skills covers higher education but concentrates on schools and further education. Most of the principles and techniques for deployment, however, apply to all sectors. The DfES emphasises sustainability and reawakens the quest for the Holy Grail of full reusability through reusable learning objects. The report addresses problems concerning teacher rewards in all sectors and the need for appropriate support, assessment and standards.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England’s e-learning strategy suggests institution-led progress within a framework of advice and guidance from Hefce’s “partners”, the Joint Information Systems Committee and the Higher Education Academy. The model suggests more personalised, student-focused delivery on or near campus but at times and places chosen by learners. It summarises collective wisdom on technology, widening access, lifelong learning, benchmarking and pedagogic research. “Change” from the original £62 million allocated to
the UKeU has been supplemented and offered to institutions for local e-learning infrastructure.

What of the proposed supporting actors? Jisc has its own e-learning programme, which provides excellent technology-focused national infrastructure and experiments with pedagogy. It has a strong background of extensively documented higher and further education system trials, standards activity and e-learning experimentation; but an unintelligent read can prove frustrating.

The Higher Education Academy will take a lead role in people support, using in part the subject network model started by the Computer Board. Both strategies argue that more relevant research and dissemination is needed. The Association for Learning Technology research strategy lists 11 key areas, each with an associated body of professional principles, knowledge and skills for practitioners. The areas include reusability, working with pre-existing “legacy” systems,
diversity, improving assessment and designing learning that is cost effective, efficient
and contains embedded quality-assurance support.

The problem for e-learning is that of moving from pockets to the mainstream without large imposed initiatives. Although it may be tough to achieve, co-ordinated national activities should provide effective infrastructure in support of agreed e-learning plans. Most institutions already have clear e-learning aims such as making courses more cost effective, increasing learner-centred study, supporting more diverse cohorts, improving course organisation and creating an effective assessment environment.

Given real university control, nationally consistent advice and help, and, especially, informed professional local support, this embedding approach might work.

John Slater is at the Institute of Educational Technology, Open University. He resigned as interim director of the UKeU in 2002.

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