The World Education Market this week in Vancouver underlines the extent to which distance education and e-learning are now a global business, fuelled by desperation as traditional providers seek new revenues and by opportunism as commercial companies seek profit in a world hungry for education.
Sir John Daniel, vice-chancellor of the Open University, one of the most experienced players in this field, rightly warns (page 15) that we have been here before (though at a less hyper level) with technological panaceas and disappointed expectations. But his caution is not stopping him from plunging into the market. The OU model is well established and tested. They have what most other wannabe providers do not, a large store of multimedia materials and, most importantly, tutoring and examining systems that underpin quality and authenticate achievement.
This is expensive - probably too expensive for many who hope for quick results. Companies and universities that aim to leverage new ventures on established brands without damaging those brands will find their growth constrained by their ability to provide such services. The OU has developed over 30 years with substantial public subsidies. New start-ups cannot expect the same support.
As the froth blows off the dot-coms and the upfront cost of providing effective new ways of learning for students becomes apparent, many of today's hopefuls may furl their tents and move on. But the revolution will not be cancelled. A generation raised on computer games and familiar with the internet will expect learning materials, whether for use in college, work place or home, to use new techniques. Consumers are becoming ever more demanding. The possibilities of wealth for those who meet demand successfully are there but profits may be more elusive than many now suppose.