E-learning scheme ready for change

15 Mar 2004 View Comments
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Computing

last week revealed that the government scheme established to promote online learning is under review.

The announcement of a Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) investigation came almost a year after Computing revealed flaws in the UKeU.

Further reading

The story raises questions about the way that online learning has so far been handled, but also offers pointers for future improvements.

The £62m UKEU project was announced in 2000 in a bold attempt to engage the UK's 100-plus higher education institutions in online distance learning.

It was hoped that UK universities would use the platform to cash in on the increasing demand from foreign students for a UK education. But four years on, the facts show that UKeU has failed to fulfil its aims.

Just 900 students have signed up for the scheme. As Computing revealed last week, this falls well short of the company's first-year target of 5,600 students. Only 16 institutions have produced courses through the initiative.

Chief executive John Beaumont told Computing last year that he believed that 40 universities would have produced courses by 2007.

"Where we didn't go along with UKeU is the platform," explained Paul Leng, head of the KIT e-learning courses at the University of Liverpool.

"Major software developments always take up huge amounts of resource and a lot of time. In my view, it wasn't necessary to do that."

Cash is also a major problem for the e-learning company. UKeU has already spent half its original £62m funding on infrastructure and course development.

With just 900 students enrolled, this means the scheme has so far subsidised distance learning to the tune of at least £30,000 for each student.

The company has committed an additional £10m a year to developing further online learning programmes. Its £2m-plus wage bill for 2002-03 included £180,000 for Beaumont. He also received a performance-related bonus of £44,914.

Mike Kelly, director of the e-languages consortium at the University of Southampton, is disappointed by the project's progress over the past four years.

"There's a question mark over whether UKeU, as an approach to higher education marketing, has worked at all," he said.

Other universities involved in UKeU told Computing that they were in favour of remedial action. A joint statement from Sheffield Hallam University and York University said that both institutions "support Hefce in the restructuring of the UkeU".

And the Open University (OU) welcomed Hefce's review and was disappointed that student recruitment had failed to meet target numbers. Planned changes are to be discussed at a Hefce board meeting on 22 April.

A Hefce spokesman told Computing: "Negotiations are ongoing and our review is still in the early stages. We can't say specifically what's going to happen."

The Hefce board, however, is keen that government funding should support the development of online learning in universities and colleges. And the new arrangements will place greater emphasis on the public good, rather than commercial objectives.

"We are also keen to ensure that the many successful collaborative e-learning programmes in the UK and overseas should continue," stated Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of Hefce.

Steve Molyneux, director of the LearningLab and one of the UK's leading experts in e-learning, echoed that sentiment, although he is critical of the UKeU's executive team.

"Poor project management and a flawed business case are to blame for the failure of UKeU, not technology nor the concept and benefits of e-learning," he said.

"Whitehall needs to learn from the mistakes of UKeU and listen more to practitioner-based experts from industry, rather than the rhetoric produced by consultancy companies which have limited experience."

Molyneux's biggest concern is that this "fiasco" will tarnish other private sector e-learning projects that are founded on sound business cases, and described it as a shame that it took the government so long to realise how misguided the UKeU approach had been.

"I would certainly welcome Hefce rethinking its strategy with regards to e-learning," he said. "I think investment funds should go directly to the higher education sector for the rollout and delivery of well-planned, sustainable, e-learning strategies to support UK and non-UK students."

Hefce has announced its enthusiasm for developing an alternative strategy that supports a "blended" approach to online education, involving a mixture of digital and traditional distance-teaching media.

The OU is already a world leader in this area. It uses a blended e-learning approach for about half of its 375 courses.

So don't give up on the idea of UK universities providing the world's best online education. They might yet learn from the mistakes of UKeU.

CASE STUDY University of Liverpool

Some universities have continued to produce e-learning courses outside the remit of UKeU. The University of Liverpool has shown that academic institutions can keep UK and international online students happy.

The university offers two 100 per cent online masters programmes: an MBA and an MSc in IT. Half of the 1,787 students on these programmes come from the UK and the rest from more than 80 countries.

Like UKeU, Liverpool's first course made a slow start and attracted just 30 students in April 2000. Unlike UKeU, tough targets were not set, and the university was able to test its systems before expanding the programme to large numbers of students.

What's more, by taking advantage of an off-the-shelf e-learning package, Liverpool didn't need to spend £62m of public money on developing its e-learning system.

KIT e-learning, the worldwide partner of the University of Liverpool, invested $10m (£5.5m) in developing a well-honed product and provided the software to Liverpool. KIT makes its money through a profit sharing agreement.

The KIT and Liverpool approach offers value for money in the public sector, and their joint agreement illustrates how UKeU's original focus was misguided.

"A huge investment in a platform was a focus on the wrong element," explained Paul Leng, head of the KIT e-learning courses at the University of Liverpool. "Our approach means the focus of everything we've done has been on pedagogical excellence and teaching."

Pedagogy is the science of teaching, and effective online education, according to Leng, is just like any other form of learning.

"What's important is the quality of relationship between the teachers and the students," he said. "And you don't need a lot of technology to do that. Just IT that allows communication across a community."

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