E-learning chases broadband generation

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
A report on e-learning in colleges and universities suggests the situation is likely to change rapidly and that funding chiefs will have to consider the issues again in the next 18 months.

The joint report, by the further and higher education funding councils, takes as its guiding principle that "e-learning is fundamentally about learning and not about technology".

But the councils warn that while e-learning has the scope to transform how institutions operate, they will have to make major changes in the way they organise courses and support students.

The report cautions against "doing e-learning badly". Examples are the production of large amounts of screen-based texts and "page-turner" approaches.

The councils urge colleges and universities to centralise some course development and concentrate on introducing e-learning where it will have greatest impact. But only after "a systematic review of the entire curriculum".

The report acknowledges that a considerable challenge remains in making staff confident and expert in the uses of e-learning, which is "not a trivial matter". There should be a more systematic approach to the skills needed by different groups of staff.

The councils accept there will be "incremental" developments in e-learning, but say there is a need for "transformational change" which cannot come about by existing institutions acting on their own. "This should involve larger, perhaps national, collaborations including appropriate partnerships with organisations with expertise and capacity such as the UK eUniversities Worldwide or the Interactive University."

The report says the funding councils need to be cautious about their involvement in the development of e-learning since this should be primarily a matter for colleges and universities. Past experience of institutions bidding for funding to run ICT projects "suggests that such projects do not, by themselves, bring about embedding of innovation".

TRIPP INTO THE FUTURE

The review was undertaken by a working group chaired by Alan Tripp, a funding council member and chartered accountant who used to be a senior executive in the electronics industry. His vision of the future includes:

* "just in time" enrolments, not solely in September or October

* learning customised "just for me"

* students able to assess their own progress online

* broadband connecting every home, library and workplace as well as educational institution, giving near universal access to learning

* routine use of the internet for group discussions and masterclasses for students within and outside Scotland

* allowing students to do everything from paying fees to visiting course-specific chatrooms and staff to undertake assessment and generate management information

* learning logs built up over a lifetime

* colleges and universities clubbing together to produce online learning materials with course content created in a small number of "centres of excellence"

* high-quality overseas providers, with Scottish institutions acting as local tutorial and support arms

* Scottish institutions fighting back by combining in consortia, perhaps with private sector bodies

* the market in overseas students drying up because students opt to study online with respected global players.

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