Net froth is red herring

April 6, 2001

The web may be better at cutting red tape than advancing learning, says Frances Cairncross.

Universities are expensive places to run. But Britain's best are global brand names, and they have long cashed in on that by attracting students paying high fees from all round the world. No wonder the phenomenon of the "death of distance" - the fall to almost zero in the cost of transmitting lots of information over long distances - makes many universities wonder whether they could make a bit of extra money by selling their brain power online. Could electronically delivered education be a more efficient way to use all that human capital that sits in senior common rooms?

The accumulating evidence suggests that although it is certainly possible to teach people things online - sometimes with better results than in conventional classes - the main benefit to universities of the communications revolution is unlikely to lie in that area. Instead, for the foreseeable future, the main effect of new technology will be on the administration of universities.

Many who teach are sceptical about the potential of online education. Some techniques, notably virtual reality, do seem effective ways to teach practical skills. Pratt & Whitney, a large aero-engine manufacturer, finds that engineers learn ten times faster when they can "fly" around a virtual model of a running Boeing 777 engine than when they listen to an instructor.

But electronic delivery appears particularly valuable when it is combined with classroom discussion. Glasgow University transmitted lectures to classes at its new campus at Crichton College in Dumfries. The students at the lectures in Glasgow left straight afterwards; those in Dumfries had a structured discussion led by a tutor. At the end of term, the Dumfries students got better grades.

However, people seem reluctant to pay much for online learning. The School of Dentistry at the University of California, Los Angeles invested $750,000 (£523,000) in creating online material to educate periodontists around the world in the latest techniques of dealing with dental diseases. The project has been a financial failure. The university finds it vastly more profitable to charge the people who might have subscribed to the service to come to lectures. None of the elaborate projects that has sprung up in the United States in recent years to deliver online university education has yet come near to recouping the hefty costs of doing so.

Much more useful - although more mundane - will be the potential to run a university more efficiently. UCLA, which is at the forefront of integrating new communications into its operations, finds that the main savings lie in the sort of things that well-run companies are doing: using the internet to coordinate the purchase of computers from a common online catalogue, for example, rather than allowing each individual to buy separately. That makes it possible to drive down the price and get a better deal.

Other innovations do not yet save money but may do so eventually. For instance, the nine University of California campuses, which jointly make up the world's biggest market for academic journals, have combined to drive a hard bargain with publishers to put their periodicals online. But the university still buys paper copies, partly because they will still be readable in half a century, when digital formats will have changed a dozen times.

Most of the things universities will do online in the next decade or so will neither save nor make money, but simply give students and faculty a better service. UCLA saves time for students by putting lecture notes online and, for faculty, by creating a standardised electronic format for filling in research-grant applications. The greatest impact of these technologies will be to cut paper-shuffling, not to be a new source of revenue.

Frances Cairncross is management editor of The Economist and has just been appointed chair of the Economic and Social Research Council. Her book, The Death of Distance 2.0 , is published by Texere this week.

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