Small, focused efforts will deliver success in net-based learning, says Roger Waterhouse
Everyone knows of the huge potential for e-learning. In a short space of time, the internet could revolutionise the way in which higher education is delivered, making it far more accessible, even to the poor. It is already changing the way in which people learn, and it should be changing the way in which learning is assessed.
But how to get from where we are to where we need to be? Universities are ponderous pillars of society operating in highly regulated environments the world over. They are the antithesis of the in-your-face anarchic tomorrow culture that is the internet.
Governments everywhere have considered the problem and given an answer - universities must collaborate. Big business gives the same answer. There are three main reasons - the scale, the need for capitalisation and the brand. They are right. But are they also naive?
In most universities, it is difficult enough to get the chemists to collaborate with the biologists, or the lawyers to collaborate with anyone at all. As for collaboration between universities, try a little test. Scan this newspaper over the next 12 months and calculate the frequency with which the term "university autonomy" occurs.
The sad but predictable result is that grand ideas may be reduced to empty hype - a brand without a product, with no hope of delivering a service that the discerning consumer would buy twice. On our very own e-university, the jury will be out until 2002, if all goes well.
There is a different way of doing it. You start from where you are and build. You take existing courses of proven quality - usually small and low volume - and ask if they are scalable.
At the University of Derby, we have an excellent multimedia MSc in pharmacy supported online. We have an MSc in strategic management delivered in Harare, Zimbabwe, largely by distance learning. We put together the two groups of enthusiasts involved in these courses and said: "Can you deliver e-learning products that the market will want?" Big operations need deep pockets. But most United Kingdom universities have already invested heavily in infrastructure and expertise that potentially can support e-learning. Money is needed, but money alone will not solve a problem that is mainly one of management.
The necessary collaboration is possible if universities self-select, are clear about their focus and target a specific market.
While plans were being unveiled in London to launch Britain's e-university in 2002, a Global University Alliance was starting operations in Hong Kong with more than 100 courses, 40 awards and real students already signed up. The alliance is a consortium of ten universities from Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. They share a focus on higher vocational education and have pooled their distance-learning experience. They have done their market analysis of Southeast Asia and targeted professionals in mid-career. And, crucially, they have enlisted a commercial partner with a proven delivery platform.
A modest start with few fanfares. But we are all aware that success will depend on one key factor - delivering the quality service that our internet customers will rightly demand.
This is the only way the e-learning project can succeed. Forget the hype and build carefully from the bottom up.
Roger Waterhouse is vice-chancellor, University of Derby.