Ride the high-tech wave and surf into the future

July 11, 2003

Charles Clarke urges universities to innovate and embrace e-learning to prepare students for the 21st century

The generation who grew up with the internet, emailing and text messaging is now in higher and further education. And universities and colleges are being pressured from several directions to introduce e-learning.

Many schools have enthusiastically embraced online learning across the curriculum. Today's students are information and communications technology savvy, and teachers are developing an enthusiasm for innovation that takes them beyond the standard classroom approach. They are using e-learning to give pupils the excitement of more independent learning, beyond the classroom, to link with learners elsewhere, and supporting home-school internet links.

The pressure comes from the other end as well. Employers need graduates with e-skills, such as information handling, network communication and data modelling. These skills cannot be acquired from basic information and communications technology courses. They are integral to how a subject is studied, as are laboratories and libraries. And these skills are transferable to a wide range of contexts in the workplace.

E-learning creates new ways of delivering and accessing education, thus giving universities and colleges an incentive to get involved. Take history. Access to digital facsimiles, to historic census data or to linguistic analysis tools is changing how students can practise the skills of a historian. Some lecturers are giving students new kinds of resources to work with, so they can experience the excitement of engaging with history at a deeper level.

Students still need the guidance of a lecturer to fully understand and check their work, but this kind of active learning can give them greater understanding of what they are studying. These days, students are looking for courses that offer more creative involvement in their studies.

E-learning can give a boost to students in any discipline, but few universities and colleges are using its full potential. A recent survey conducted by Ultralab exposed the disparity between institutions and courses. We are barely halfway through the process of embedding e-learning facilities in post-school education, but I know that the further and higher education sectors want to support progression from school to further learning.

E-learning offers the ideal link, and if some universities and colleges can do it, why not all? Some have invested in trials and initiatives that have shown the feasibility of e-learning. The further and higher education sectors have achieved pockets of excellence, and often the expertise is there. Some institutions are setting a lead. Their students are accessing materials and support through e-learning design tools and assessment systems.

But all too often a promising project falters when funding ends. Newly developed experts take their skills to the private sector. We know that under the right conditions, e-learning can transform the learning experience and enhance the reach and quality of what teachers can do for learners.

We have to make those pockets of excellence universal. That is why this week we have published a consultation document, Towards a Unified E-learning Strategy. The white paper The Future of Higher Education cited the fact that, as part of this wider strategy, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has been asked to bring forward sustainable plans for e-learning. Its consultation paper, E-Learning in Higher Education is also about to be published. The Learning and Skills Council will similarly announce its plans this month.

The time has come to take the leap to make e-learning a natural part of our educational process. We have to envisage a future system of education and together work out how to achieve this. It will not be easy to transform an educational process designed in the 19th century to one tailored to 21st-century needs. But we have the example of many institutions, courses and departments that have done just that. Leadership is one of the key strategic actions in the proposed strategy.

You, as education leaders, are best placed to drive the change. You have the understanding of what your students need. As lecturers, you need both support and encouragement to innovate. What would an academic career trajectory look like if we judged innovation in teaching a subject with the same rigour and standards we apply to research? These are issues we need to debate, analyse and act on.

We look forward to working with all stakeholder groups - leaders, lecturers, support staff and learners - to collaborate on an e-learning strategy for a 21st-century education system.

Charles Clarke is secretary of state for education and skills.

Towards a Unified E-learning Strategy can be found at www.dfe.gov.uk/consultations2/16/

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