Re-engineering the learning business

January 12, 1996

Detlef Mueller-Boeling (World View, THES, December 22) gave an interesting account of higher education as a business, which it clearly is. We provide a service of quality for a price to a mix of stakeholders from students to government to the community.

He discussed how various business approaches - strategic planning, total quality, learning organisation - had been successfully applied, but baulked at business process re-engineering. He rightly saw information technology as key in this, but for education this means not just communications using the Internet, but also multimedia. Students have individual learning needs and problems, but they also have common difficulties that can be anticipated and handled through carefully constructed learning resources. This leaves personal contact to focus on the individual.

This is precisely what distance-education providers, such as my own institution do, but we do benefit from economies of scale, for our provision is capital intensive. Most tuition is written, so adding information technology is more a change of medium rather than approach. It is still difficult, and must not compromise quality. Internet interaction can escalate without control. There are problems of authentication of formal submissions.

Conventional providers often depend on verbal communication. Transferring lectures and voice tuition without change to IT may not be effective. Conventional providers should consider using distance-education methods with their basis in writing and the anticipation of learning problems, and re-engineer their processes appropriately by adopting information technology. The problem is the capital intensive nature of the processes. A solution is collaborations for basic provision, as fostered by Teaching and Learning Technology Programme projects. Indeed the benefits of TLTP products may not be realised without this educational process re-engineering. Maybe the students and staff will get a much better educational experience.

Patrick A.V. Hall

Computing department

The Open University

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