eLearning reconsidered. Have e-learning and virtual universities met the expectations?
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Looking back, the integration of the WWW in the Internet has been a success within almost every area of society: news distribution, public information, self-service, public relations, advertising, etc. Similar high expectations were also related to the introduction of e-learning in the educational area. But, so far, the success seems only to be related to informal learning through just-in-time and just-in-place short courses available on the Internet.
In this article, I will focus on the development of virtual universities and discuss some reasons for the lack of success.
eLearning and Virtual Universities
At the height of the dotcom bubble Peter Drucker predicted that “universities won’t survive … as residential institutions” (The Guardian, April 13, 2004), and others, along the same lines, foresaw that universities would become content providers and learning facilitators to for-profit producers of “learningware”.
In the late nineties, several US universities formed commercial companies alone or in collaboration with other universities, cultural institutions and providers of e-solutions. Among others, New York University invested $20m in NYU Online and Columbia University formed Fathom together with 14 universities, libraries and museums, using $40m. None of these ever launched an e-learning course. At the same time, Cornell University invested $12m in eCornell without registering any significant numbers of students. Also, the attempt by the Open University of the UK to deliver education on the US marked failed with a loss of approximately $20m.
One of the few successful e-learning providers in the USA is University of Phoenix, and its success seems to be related to a focus on a limited and specialised market in the business and health field.
At the same time, in Europe, the European Council adopted a grand scale plan called Europe. An Information Society for All (Lisbon, March 2000) with the goal of becoming ‘the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world’ by 2010. In May the same year, the European Commission published a communication entitled e-Learning – Designing tomorrow’s education.
Parallel to these political initiatives, but without coordination from the European Commission, many national European projects for e-learning were launched, e.g. the UK e-University, the Digital University in the Netherlands, the Bavarian Virtual University, the Virtual University in Finland and the Net-University in Sweden.
Five years later, the UKeU has ceased operations. What was launched as a worldwide 21st century successor of the Open University never attracted financial support from commercial partners and recruited only 900 students at a time when 5000 were expected. £60m of public money was spent on the operation.
The Dutch Digital University - a consortium of universities in the Netherlands together with some it-companies and publishers - is still in operation, but the volume is in no way significant, and partners are considering withdrawing.
The Finnish Virtual University and the Swedish Net-University – both government-run initiatives - have increased their amount of online courses, trying to recruit students from other institutions and regions in the country, but the expected inter-institutional collaboration is still missing.
At the Bavarian Virtual University, also a government initiative, the amount of courses offered as e-learning and available for students from all institutions in Bavaria has been successfully achieved, but with no side effects along the lines of improved inter-institutional collaboration.
The most important lesson learned from these European virtual university and e-learning experiences is that none of the initiatives have reached a level of sustainability – they will not survive if government support is withdrawn.
Considerations regarding eLearning development
In his presentation at the eLearning Conference in Brussels in May 2005, Fabrizio Cardinali from Giunti Interactive Labs, Italy, characterised e-Learning the development in the late nineties as ‘the big wave of e-learning’, and the development at the start this century as ‘the Tsunami of e-learning’.
Nevertheless, in a report published as early as 2001, the OECD spotted the difficulties of implementing e-learning: "In spite of having spent US$ 16 billion in 1999 in OECD countries on ICT, there is (…) no clear evidence that ICT investments made by the public sector have resulted in improved performance of teachers and/or learners, nor that it has improved the quality and access to educational resources on the scale predicted.” (E-Learning. The Partnership Challenge, 2001, p. 24).
Recently, another OECD report entitled E-learning in Tertiary Education. Where do we stand?, published in 2005, has elaborated on the same problem:
“e-learning has not really revolutionized learning and teaching to date. Far-reaching, novel ways of teaching and learning, facilitated by ICT, remain nascent or still to be invented. (…) The adoption of learning management systems (LMS) (…) appears to be one of the prominent features of e-learning development in the tertiary education worldwide. (…) The current immaturity of online learning is demonstrated by low adoption of content management systems (…). ICT has penetrated tertiary education, but has had more impact on administrative services (e.g. admissions, registration, fee payment, purchasing) than on the pedagogic fundamentals of the classroom.” (p. 14-15)
Although the reports express scepticism regarding the integration of ICT in tertiary teaching and learning, they also stress a general confidence in the use of educational technology. The first one gives an analysis of the situation that points to technology fixation and lack of cultural specificities as the main cause for the absence of success in e-learning:
“Technology alone does not deliver educational success. It only becomes valuable in education if learners and teachers can do something useful with it. (…) educational content and e-learning services (…) need to be tailored to local needs and cultures." (E-Learning. The Partnership Challenge, 2001, p. 24-25).
In the British debate following the collapse of the UKeU in 2004, the national funding council explained with a certain degree of bitterness that the lack of interest in e-learning was caused by universities focusing on ‘blended’ learning. But, already a year earlier, at the opening of the Learntec Forum in Karlsruhe on February 4, 2003, Commissioner Reding promoted blended learning as the future for e-learning:
“Modern e-learning solutions now recognise the importance of learning as a social process and offer possibilities for collaboration with other learners, for interaction with the learning content and for guidance from teachers, trainers and tutors. (…) Teachers and trainers once more play a central role, using virtual and traditional face-to-face interaction with their students in a “blended” approach. An approach in which they are no longer seen simply as consumers of pre-determined e-learning content, but as editors, authors and contributors to a contextualised learning scenario”.
This statement by Mrs Reding is not to be read as a total decline of e-leaning or online education, but as recognition of the need for teacher-student interaction and shared responsibility in the learning process. Neither should the statement be taken as an indication of lost confidence in ICT as the means by which to realise the vision for the Knowledge Society by the Commission.
Taken together, the OECD reports, the VET-report and Mrs Reding’s statement indicate that the success of e-learning depends on pedagogical development and the closer integration of technology within students’ previous learning experiences.
Attempts to dig deeper into the problems of eLearning
Parallel to the experiments with virtual universities over the last decade, many universities, particularly open universities, have implemented e-learning solutions in their programmes, often with a touch of the blended approach. Let me use the Open University of the UK as an example.
The success of the UKOU has often been seen as a direct consequence of its well-prepared educational resources and the conscious use of educational technology in a speed adapted to students’ needs. The point I want to make is that this interpretation overlooks an essential feature in the UKOU concept: the integration of learning activities in the resources and the tutorials – and the ability to make these activities culturally relevant. The success of the UKOU is related to the implementation of a social constructivist approach to learning. They shifted the concept of learning from knowledge acquisition to knowledge construction.
The difficulties faced by many of the e-learning and online learning initiatives mentioned above have been caused by viewing learning, and especially e-learning, as a process of knowledge transfer instead of knowledge construction - too much emphasis has been placed on the concept of stand-alone courses and resource-based learning. This approach has been supported, on the one hand by a relative success of short, practice-orientated just-in-time and just-in-place courses available on the Internet or on CD-ROM and, on the other hand, by a focus on learning objects – reusable learning resources - as a possible means of reducing costs in education.
My point is not to diminish the achievements of the learning object concept, but to question the concept of learning, which in many cases is incorporated through instructional design theory. “Instructional design is based on the empiric assumption that behaviour is predictable, and that educational design, therefore, can occur in isolation from educational execution.” (Koper, 2000 p.14), but: “(…) a lot of learning does not come from knowledge resources at all, but stems from the activities of learners solving problems, interacting with real devices, interacting in their social and work situation. (…) it is the activities of the learners in the learning environment which are accountable for the learning.” (Koper, 2001 p.3).
Learning resources (learning objects) broadly taken only become active during the learning process when the learner is doing something useful with them. The creation of relevant learning activities becomes essential. Successful learning activities mobilise the capacities (present knowledge, cultural heritage, etc.) of learners and establish a dialogue with the new learning resource as the basis for learning. Hereby, teachers and tutors are reinstalled in a position as responsible for organising the learning process. They are choosing relevant learning resources and creating learning activities needed in order to reach defined educational objectives.
Technologies to enhance learning as e-learning should augment these realities of the learning process – interaction, communication, collaboration and construction; in order to be successful and meet expectations, the knowledge society has to offer ICT-based learning in the future.
Bang, J.(2005): eBOLOGNA – Creating a European Learning Space. A Step Towards the Knowlegde Society, IN: UNESCO between Two Phases of the World Summit on the Information Society, Saint Petersburg, Russia, 17-19 May, 2005, Moscow 2005, p. 137-143 (ISBN 5-901907-14-0)
Bang, J. & Dalsgaard, C. (2006): Rethinking e-learning. Shifting the focus to learning activities, In: O Murchú, D. & Sorensen, E(eds.)., Enhancing Learning Through Technology, Idea Group, Inc, 2006 (in print)
E-learning:The Partnership Challenge. (2001) OECD. (Online), March 1, 2005.
E-learning in Tertiary Education. Where do we stand? (2005) OECD
Koper, R. (2000). From change to renewal: Educational technology foundations of electronic environments. (Online), February 23, 2004.
Koper, R (2001).: Modeling units of study from az pedagogical perspektive. The pedagogical meta-model behind EML, Educational Thechnology Expertice Centre, Open University of the Netherlands, 2001. Online.
Reding, V. (2003). Is e-learning going mainstream? Opening of the Learntec Forum, Karlsruhe, 4 February 2003. (Online), September 14, 2003.