Trade in your skills

April 7, 2000

The online age of learning is here.Universities that lack e-courses will go bust, warns Dale Spender.

There can be no question about the existence of e-universities; they are as much a reality of the 21st century as e-commerce. (They are a little later in starting up, however.) The questions that do arise about e-universities are: what form will they take and how will they come about?

And, as the learning business (which could include universities) goes through the process of restructuring, downsizing and deregulation, where do academic staff fit into this form of organisation?

Many of the world leaders of universities (and learning businesses) are already making plans for the transformation to the dot-com culture. It is technological change that is driving the agenda. Alan Gilbert, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, says that universities are confronting a revolution; that they are losing their 900-year-old monopoly on teaching and accrediting - and that those that cannot adjust to the new industry will not survive. Business guru Peter Drucker agrees; by the year 2020 the residential university - with campus - will have disappeared, he says. Though it may have educational tourist potential.

Sir John Daniel of the Open University has a somewhat different take on the learning revolution; he sees a massive shift in emphasis from teacher to learner. In the e-university the student is the customer.

For almost 1,000 years universities have been stable institutions. They have been repositories of information, and students have travelled from all parts of the world to sit at the feet of certain scholars and to have access to privileged information.

This was how it worked in the days of print. But with the advent of digital media, students no longer go to the university to learn - the university must go to them. This is the role of the e-university, and this is how students become customers.

The connected world is full of learning shoppers (or students) who are browsing through the e-learning supermarkets, seeking the best buys. Students (or learning shoppers) love these products. And if universities do not have e-courses and products on the shelves, they will be out of business.

Corporate universities, and for-profit providers (such as the University of Phoenix) are already attracting traditional students along with a new breed of workers who want to upgrade their knowledge. Venture capitalists and entrepreneurs understand that learning is the biggest business of the 21st century: mergers, takeovers, start-ups and stock exchange listings are already well under way.

This is not the old distance learning, but online classroom interaction. Consumers can choose when to start and when to stop. They can learn any place, at any pace. They can choose the tutors, the topics, the terms. They are savvy purchasers who may want the learning so they can do the earning or they may buy the product simply for its pleasure or leisure value. They vote with their fingers rather than their feet.

"Online, I always get front-row parking and never have a bad- hair day," declares one student. "I can leave my class, get up and go for a run - and when I get back the class is still there. I haven't missed a thing."

But how far are traditional universities prepared for such transformation?

To believe that it can be done cheaply is pure ivory-tower thinking. There is no incremental way a traditional university with bricks and mortar and schedules and lectures can be reinvented as an e-university with the necessary IT infrastructure, the learning packages and the skilled staff to deliver to the world's students. Many do not want to go in this direction; some do not know where to begin.

Which is why universities in the United Kingdom and Australia will have to forge alliances with other businesses globally. And why academics will have to become learning managers and mentors and acquire a new set of skills.

In the current university culture, many believe that the way they do scholarship, research and teaching is the only way it can be done. The reality is that this is the way it has been done in the print period. In the digital era it will be done differently.

Issues about ethics, equity and excellence (along with entertainment) will be just as central in the e-university as they have been in the old system. And in a knowledge society where the wealth of a nation depends on the smartness and creativity of the population, the ability to think, critique and connect, to solve problems and forge solutions will be increasingly valued.

But it will be virtually a different world in which we live, learn and labour - whether or not today's institutions of higher education become e-universities.

Dale Spender is adjunct professor at the University of Queensland. She is preparing the position paper, Online Delivery: Are Australian Universities Prepared?, for the Australian government and is speaking at the Networked Learning 2000 Conference at the University of Lancaster

* Should universities be forging global partnerships with private businesses to deliver e-courses?

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