What has happened to the UK's £62m e-university? Mark Samuels reports
Teaching students online can seem like a mission impossible. All too often, e-learning leaves students frustrated and bored. Knowledge is not exchanged through networks of learners, content is not updated and systems break down.
Education secretary Charles Clarke recently challenged universities to think more creatively about how to use e-learning best. But the blueprint for this creative thinking already exists.
UK eUniversity (UKeU) is a joint venture between the private and higher education sectors. It was announced in February 2000 and is backed by £62 million of government funding. It aims to deliver British degree courses to students worldwide.
The project has been dogged by a slow roll-out, however. UKeU aimed to deliver its first courses in September 2002 and has committed nearly half of its original funding but so far has launched only two schemes, with 12 more due to begin this autumn. Typical problems are those experienced by the University of Cambridge and Open University's postgraduate certificate in "Learning in the connected economy", which finally began in March. These included marketing, platform development and government guidelines for content development.
Jake Reynolds, assistant director at the University of Cambridge programme for industry, said: "The main thing the UKeU had to learn was how to liaise with academic institutions. Being the first ever university course to work on the UKeU's platform has been a very interesting experience - and not all pleasant."
Despite this, UKeU's approach is likely to remain at the forefront of online learning. The Higher Education Funding Council for England's consultation paper on e-learning suggests any strategic approach will require institutions to build on existing activities. It believes there is potential for universities to draw on the services provided by UKeU.
Students can use its portal to log on to individual courses developed by specific universities, and it could be used to widen participation.
Jill Hewitt, commercial manager for the department of computer science at the University of Hertfordshire, said that running a separate in-house online learning course was not cost effective so signing up to the UKeU seemed a sensible alternative. "It's backed by all the national educational boards and it's got so much government backing," she said.
Universities keen to develop online courses delivered via UKeU have to create content, which requires academic specialists, designers, developers and project managers - and thus, a large upfront investment.
UKeU chief executive John Beaumont recognises this. "You've got to make sure you're exploiting the platform in the best possible way for the students' benefit. And content production is, therefore, quite costly," he said.
UKeU will provide financial help for universities accepted on to its platform. It has contracts with 15 universities and is negotiating with a further 20.
So how can institutions get their ideas accepted by UKeU and some cash for development?
UKeU judges proposals on categories that include potential market size, existing competition, content description and business plan. Its scheme of payment provides money for content provision in return for rights - but do not expect a free handout. Development cash is repaid over an agreed period at an agreed interest rate. What's more, once a contract is signed, UKeU will provide a loan to a university to develop and provide the course for only a set number of years.
But waiting for cash can leave institutions in a catch-22 situation. UKeU has stated that it will not replicate courses. And universities keen to get in first will not want to be held back by a lack of funding.
Some institutions, therefore, feel they should fund early development themselves. King's College London began developing its war in the modern world MA for UKeU last autumn. Anne-Lucie Norton, director of King's e-learning programme, said most higher education institutions would find it difficult to gear up quickly for the substantial investment required by projects for UKeU. In particular, most institutions do not hold the necessary technical expertise in-house.
"We took the view that it was worth risking some funds to have core team members in place, so that when the contract was signed we were able to start immediately," Dr Norton said.
The University of Southampton is planning to launch a series of modules in "English for academic purposes" alongside the Worldwide Universities Network in September. Like King's, Southampton funded initial course development costs before the UKeU contract was agreed.
Mike Kelly, director of the e-languages consortium at Southampton, said the university was keen to underwrite expenses incurred at an early stage. "If they'd taken a hard line and said there's no resource until the contract was signed, then we would be at a standing start now and there's no way we could deliver the course by September," he said.
UKeU recognises that the likely requirement for any deal is some sharing of upfront investment. This investment may be appropriate to keep the momentum going while the contract is being worked out in good faith.
Working on the contract extends to individual terms and conditions - and institutions would be well advised to bargain their position while their contract is being discussed. Repayments of UKeU loans start as soon as a course begins to generate revenue. Charges will also be made for marketing and the use of the UKeU's e-learning platform.
The terms of each contract depend on the nature of the course. Rather than use UKeU's marketing function, King's opted to undertake its own marketing on its masters degree.
The King's course adds breadth to UKeU's subject coverage. Overseas students will have access to a wide selection of subject areas, including health, law and geographical information systems.
But convincing large numbers of students to log on and learn at a distance is still difficult. It has been suggested that UKeU is using the wrong format, because it is offering full degrees rather than elements of a course.
While a third of students use e-learning to supplement classroom-based learning, just 7 per cent complete full remote online courses, according to technology analyst group Gartner. "Students don't necessarily need a full degree, they want to select a specific course that suits their needs at that time," said Michael Zastrocky, vice-president and research director for education at Gartner.
UKeU's chief architect Jonathan Darby recognises that successful e-learning courses need to be part of a wider learning programme, and that these courses usually need to be integrated with a face-to-face approach. UKeU's desire to offer courses to international students, regardless of location, means courses concentrate on the online format. But Mr Darby said: "It's straightforward to substitute online forums with face-to-face activities and you could have some modules that are taught in a conventional manner."
UKeU is looking at a "flexible" teaching approach, and programmes that mix on and offline learning are under development. Should the worst-case scenario unfold, and the UKeU fail to take-off, Mr Darby said that institutions would still have benefited technologically. "We'll have developed a high-quality platform that is particularly well-suited for development by academic teams," he said. The Open University is reusing learning objects developed for "Learning in the connected economy".
It's been a slow start for UKeU, but creative thinking from institutions is beginning to show that e-learning might not be a mission impossible after all.
COST AND CONTENT - KEYS TO SUCCESS
E-learning is expensive and most institutions will probably need to draw on both UKeU and in-house funding.
UKeU has so far committed £8 million to the development of university courses - and £10 million more will be spent "for the foreseeable future" to develop additional programmes.
But decision-makers should ensure money is available to pursue in-house e-learning development as and when it is required.
The University of Ulster has invested "millions and millions" of pounds in online learning. It has spent £3 million on software and hardware alone.
"It's the type of infrastructure that any modern university will require for their students, whether they're face-to-face or distance learning," said Clive Mulholland, professor of technology enhanced learning at UU.
Ulster is contracted with UKeU across a range of science masters courses and is planning to launch them in September.
Developing an e-learning course can be tricky - especially when you are technologically inexperienced.
"You can't design courses by simply incorporating existing support materials you might have in the university," said Jonathan Darby, UKeU's chief architect.
Content for courses has to be designed from the ground up.
Anne-Lucie Norton, director of King's College London's e-learning programme, said academics and content writers had to be tutored in how to create content for UKeU. She added that resource management presented an interesting challenge.
"There's a tremendous amount of multimedia content that we could incorporate and we've got to decide what is most appropriate to advance learning," Dr Norton said.