On the right track
Professor Brenda Gourley the OU's vice chancellor
When the Open University was launched 35 years ago, many academics and politicians argued that it was unworkable. Today it has confounded its critics. More than two million people have used the OU to access higher education from their homes and workplaces - many of whom would have been denied access to conventional universities.
It now has over 200,000 students in more than 40 countries studying for a range of degrees and vocational qualifications. And it has come a long way from its image of grainy televised lectures delivered at 2am by dry, bearded academics.
The OU has been at the forefront of global development of education programmes, bringing university education to the masses by combining the latest communications technology with traditional teaching methods.
This has been key to its success, says Professor Brenda Gourley, the OU's vice chancellor. "The OU model is not just slamming a whole lot of stuff into books or on to a website," she says. "The OU has what is called a supported open learning model, so we never leave people out there on their own - they have a lot of support.
"They have the choice of coming to tutorials if they want to. They have telephone contact with associate lecturers who are designated to look after them. They have e-mail contact with associate lecturers whose e-mails they have and use.
"They have a range of support services in terms of counselling, careers, and computer help desks."
This OU model of supported open learning is likely to have a big influence on government thinking on e-learning. Professor Diana Laurillard, who heads the Department for Education and Skills' e-learning strategy unit is on secondment from the OU.
Brenda Gourley was previously vice chancellor of the University of Natal and was the first woman to lead a university in her native South Africa.
But despite extolling the virtues of the OU model, she has not been afraid to debunk the myth that new technology is some Holy Grail that will miraculously raise standards of education and open up learning to millions.
In the fifth Geoffrey Hubbard Memorial Lecture sponsored by The TES this summer, she said e-learning has the potential to make learning reach many people in many places, at any time, at relatively low cost. But she attacked the quality of much web material for "posturing as education".
She told The TES: "I think what's annoying about a whole lot of educational offerings on the web is that they assume you can take someone's lecture notes, put them on the web and suddenly, they are learning materials. And they're not. If you look at some of the stuff on the web and you compare that with the OU materials, then you would know the difference.
"What bothers me is that students don't know in advance what the difference is. I find it extremely worrying that there's a whole lot of stuff that's posturing as education and it's not."
One factor which must have set back the cause for e-learning is the demise earlier this year of the e-university, UKeU, which has been slammed as an "absolute disaster". UKeU was set up as a joint venture between the Government, a dozen universities and private industry to broker online degrees from British universities. Sixty-two million pounds of public money was ploughed into it, but only 900 students had signed up by the time the plug was pulled in February.
Professor Gourley believes the idea was misconceived. "The fact is that each university is going to have their own e-learning offerings. They're not going to channel them through one central house. Everybody has to get aboard the whole digital world - it's not compartmentalised."
Among one of the more extravagant past claims made for e-learning is that it could make school buildings redundant as mobile technology allows young people to learn wherever they are.
Professor Gourley rejects this, though she says the way we learn is changing immeasurably. "We are attaching much more importance to the ability to sift knowledge, access knowledge wherever it might be and creatively use knowledge "And more and more we are recognising that knowledge is something that resides on big computers in the sky if you like, and how we use that knowledge is going to distinguish one person from another."
She adds: "I think that schools must be organised in different ways. I don't see little children sitting in long rows with their blackboards, their slates or even their notepads in quite the same way as we were used to, but organised in teams where different members of the team find different things, pool them, synthesise them and creatively think how to use them.
"So you're putting much more of a premium on creativity, for instance, and the ability to think laterally and to synthesise large quantities of information, perhaps in a way that's almost unprecedented."