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'It's not cheaper, it's not better, it's an alternative'

Catherine Elliott of Borders College has carried out a survey of online learning and asks whether the sector should put all its eggs into this one basket

To date, the Scottish Further Education Funding Council has committed significant investment to information and communications technology. A number of ministers are enthusiastic about the benefits of online learning and how it can respond positively to the lifelong learning agenda.

There is also political pressure to reduce competition between colleges. But online provision may actually increase competition as students use it to access learning worldwide and traditional Scottish FE students have the option to study at an alternative location.

This view is supported by Dr Betty Collis in her book on tele-learning. She predicted in 1996 that post-secondary establishments "will be forced to compete with each other. They will still function as they do, but learners will increasingly pick and choose where and what they learn and from whom."

To achieve online learning success, research shows that significant achievements occur when it is delivered through collaborative projects.

However, it seems absurd that the Scottish Executive is advocating the development of this type of provision in all colleges. Research reveals that colleges which did not already offer online learning were working towards its implementation.

Perhaps collaborative projects should be set up which consider various ways of providing learning as technology is moving so quickly, rather than putting all our eggs in one online basket. But before this can have a major impact long-term funding will be required to support initiatives and collaborative projects.

Is is also worth noting that online learning is not suited to all students as many do not have the appropriate IT skills. In addition, research suggests that a significant number of staff do not have the skills to develop, deliver and support it either. The involvement of seior management is also vital.

One college summed up its view of online learning succinctly: "It's not cheaper, it's not better, it's an alternative." Perhaps the way forward is for online learning to be implemented as an additional option which may be suited to some learners, but it should be delivered as one respondent suggested "as well as" and "not instead of" other forms of study.

In addition, online learning should be integrated into college development plans and clear targets set. While initial capital investment is required to provide the infrastructure for ICT development, it is important that financial support is maintained.

The requirements of online learners should be instrumental in the development of online provision. A lack of expertise in courseware design may result in online materials that are uninteresting rather than dynamic and stimulating.

Some colleges have invested heavily in ICT; however, this may have been to the detriment of other areas within the college and a co-ordinated funding programme is needed.

The funding council must recognise the significant costs incurred in developing course materials and the time required guiding, supporting and giving feedback to learners. Staff also require time to enable them to develop and apply ICT skills.

Colleges that develop online learning materials in-house should endeavour to ensure that they are transferable. Colleges could then "trade" their materials for others.

My research identified a number of models of good practice. However, a significant number of colleges are still in the early stages of implementation and until full recognition is given to the time required to enable staff to develop and apply ICT skills and to ensure that ICT resources are easily accessible to all staff online learning will have limited impact.

The view of Nicol Stephen, now the Deputy Education Minister, that there will be an "explosion" in online learning is somewhat premature.

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