Select Committee on Education and Skills Third Report

5 Future for e-learning

A learner-centred approach to e-learning

Blended learning

113. In July 2003, HEFCE consulted on their strategy for promoting e-learning in higher education. Respondents overwhelmingly requested a strategy that emphasises 'blended' approaches to learning and teaching—where e-learning via the web or other technologies is augmented by more traditional methods, including classroom sessions, and the use of books and other resources—rather than wholly computer based learning. In promoting blended learning, respondents requested an approach that is not restricted to the use of technology and emphasised that e-learning is a process, not a product.

114. Dr Howells commented that he was surprised that UKeU were not pursuing a blended approach to e-learning.

'Yes, I was very surprised by that because the experience of mixing with other people and of speaking face to face with tutors and lecturers and so on is a key part of university experience and of the learning experience in general.[71]

'I think it has been learned and it is a very important lesson. We know, for example, from failures in other countries as well that what people want is not simply to be able to access information and programmes on their screens; they also want face-to-face meetings and they want to be part of something that people of our generation called a university.'[72]

115. The Government's White Paper 'The Future of Higher Education'[73] spoke of working with partners to embed e-learning in a full and sustainable way within the next 10 years. The Government and HEFCE have given a strategic commitment to e-learning. However, they have not yet explained how blended e-learning is actually going to be 'embedded in a full and sustainable way' in the next 10 years.

116. In their Memorandum to the Committee, the HEFCE said:

'We are now working with the Department for Education and Skills, and particularly with our implementation partners JISC and the HE Academy, to finalise the strategy and devise an action plan for its implementation. Evaluation of the lessons learnt from the e-University project will form part of the research component of our strategy. We plan to issue the strategy in the autumn.'[74]

117. HEFCE are now planning to publish their strategy early in 2005. The Government, through HEFCE, must deliver on its commitment to outline its strategy, and action plan for its implementation, for embedding e-learning in HE in a full and sustainable way.

Future research

118. Evidence suggests that further research is needed into the future direction of e-learning. UKeU has also taught us that a focus on technology must not drive such research. In evidence Sir Howard Newby said:

'The first lesson I would learn is that the development of e-learning needs to be learner-centred rather than technology driven. We need to know a lot more about the needs of learners and, if I may get a little bit technical here, the form of pedagogy that e-learning involves'.[75]

119. In a press release in May, the HEFCE said 'The main aim of the restructuring, is to maintain the development of good e-learning practice, but to anchor that in the UK's universities themselves. To that end, the e-China project, a UK-Chinese intergovernmental project to foster and exchange e-learning technology and practice, will be housed with the University of Cambridge. The £3 million funding of that project will continue. The UKeU's e-learning Research Centre, which aims to be a world-class research group in the field, is also to be managed by Manchester, Southampton, and the Higher Education Academy.

120. The Minister clarified the future of the e-Learning Research Centre. Dr Howells said:

'The e-Learning Research Centre aims to identify and investigate research problems in the field of e-Learning. They, of course, have strategic importance for the sector as a whole. Originally it was set up as part of the e-University's programme within UKeU and it will now operate under the guidance of the HE Academy. One of its objectives will be to ensure that the HE sector benefits from the work of UK e-Universities worldwide. It is based across two locations, the University of Manchester and the University of Southampton. They will work closely together to ensure that their activities are aligned and to this end their work will include a number of joint projects and research activities. If I could just expand a little on that, the focus of Manchester will be in the area of process modelling based on the concept of an end-to-end process for design development, evaluation, delivery and maintenance of e-Learning, and the focus at Southampton will be on the pedagogic aspects of e-Learning in the end-to-end process of development.'[76]

121. A key part of the research will be to share good practice in both pedagogy and technological development across the sector. From the very first HEFCE consultation in 2000[77] some HEIs recognised the issues of commercial sensitivity in this area. The Government and HEFCE will need to take effective action in their responsibility to give clear direction on these areas of sharing good practice and commercial sensitivity.

122. The Minister expressed a strong belief in the fact that there was a bright future for e-learning:

'Oh yes, there is no question about it. There is too much evidence out there, especially in schools, where teachers are using this very imaginatively. There are some tremendous programmes being devised. It comes back to the question you asked about what it is that people feel comfortable with and what they want.'[78]

123. All the evidence we have received agrees that there is a great future for e-learning. Exactly how that future will unfold is still unknown—five years on from the development of the original idea for the e-University project.

124. Given the increasing role of FE Colleges in delivering HE, it is important that collaborative projects across the two sectors are sought out. There is likely to be a great deal of overlap in terms of the research required into e-learning between the two sectors and we should not be duplicating investment where resources are limited.

125. The Government, through HEFCE, have the remaining £12 million to develop the future of e-learning. In the Minister's view this was sufficient funds:

'They have got the residual amount of about £12.5 million at the moment to experiment with. That is a fair chunk of money and I would have to see some very good plans before I would say, "Okay; there is another ten million funds. Get on with it".[79]

126. The Government, through HEFCE, should state as soon as possible how it intends to invest the residual £12 million funds remaining from the e-University project in order to meet its commitment 'to embed e-learning in a full and sustainable way' over the next 10 years. In doing so, it should keep in mind the importance of collaborative projects across the FE and HE sectors.

The market for e-Universities

The future of the platform

127. The technology platform that was developed for UKeU by Sun Microsystems UK Ltd was a functioning platform when the first set of courses were launched in September 2003. Work was still needed to develop the platform further and to iron out the difficulties that emerged through use of the platform, but in essence a working platform existed. Given that £14.5 million of public money was invested in developing this platform, it is important to ascertain the ownership and future of the platform.

128. The value of the platform itself is largely vested in the ownership of the intellectual property rights (IPRs). The IPRs regime for the platform is complex, with some elements owned by Sun Microsystems Ltd, some owned by UKeU, and some owned jointly. Neither HEFCE nor HoldCo could exercise any control over the IPRs. HEFCE is in negotiation with Sun with regard to the ownership of IPRs to try and ensure that the HE sector may benefit from an asset which might become exploitable in future. Leslie Stretch, Vice President of Sun Microsystems UK, told us that it was Sun's intention to ensure that any future benefits are delivered back to UK education:

'The intellectual property of the platform has substantial value in our view. Our objective—and we are almost there with an agreement on a memorandum of understanding with HEFCE—is to see that the system has a life and benefits are delivered back to UK education, not just higher education. In high-level, broad strokes that is the plan at the moment.'[80]

129. David Beagle, also of Sun Microsystems, said:

'…our main aim is to make the ability to use the platform available to UK education in general at no charge, so where the IPR actually rests is, in our view, not the most important thing, it is how we make the benefits of all that effort available to UK education for the universities, schools, FE colleges, what have you, and what we are trying to discuss with HEFCE is how we make the platform (as is) available to them either in total or in individual modules for them to use.'[81]

130. An essential part of closing down the UKeU project was ensuring that, in the final stages, all was done to promote the best use of existing assets and exploiting lessons that had been learnt. It has been suggested by several witnesses that the final stage of close-down was too hurried. The administrator, Robson Rhodes, was appointed in March 2004 and the project was brought to a close on 18 June 2004. It has been suggested that this did not allow enough time to make the most of existing assets and to discuss the lessons learnt and ideas for the future. Leslie Stretch, Vice President of Sun Microsystems UK Ltd said:

'The short answer is we still see that today and in the closing stages when Robson Rhodes were involved we discussed a number of different options. I feel that we ran out of time to explore those more fully. We have learnt a great many lessons about the governance, about the key parameters around the business venture, and we do not want to throw the baby out with the bath water.'[82]

131. £14.5 million of public funds was invested in the development of the UKeU technology platform. At present it is not clear how much of this investment can be recovered, or to what use the platform can be put. Whilst is too early to determine the future value of the platform, it is important that the returns should be maximised and that they should be invested back into e-learning.

Market research

132. The global market for e-learning is still in its very early stages. It is an emerging market that is not well understood and more research is needed. Little is understood about the importance of brands, for example. Insitutions as well regarded as Cornell and Columbia Universities in the United States have had significant difficulties in making e-learning projects work.[83] In the original HEFCE consultation with sector in October 2000, some HEIs were concerned that there would be branding challenges in an e-University that worked with a wide range of HEIs[84]. Dr Howells told us:

'I am not sure that was the reason why there were such abysmal numbers of students signing up to this but I have no doubt whatsoever that if there was a clearer brand --- I get tangled up just trying to say UKeU anyway. I do not know who dreamt that one up but it is not a great title. It is typical of the sort of rubbish that was around at that time.'[85]

133. Manchester and Southampton are continuing the work of the e-Learning Research Centre into terms of process development and pedagogy, but nobody has been identified as conducting market research to understand better the global market for e-learning. If commercial sensitivity is an issue that has been identified for the existing research being undertaken at the e-Learning Research Centre, then it must be recognised as having a much greater impact in terms of market research.

134. We recommend that the Government, through HEFCE, ensures that thorough and robust market research is undertaken for use by the whole sector in order to maintain the UK interests in the global market for e-learning, keeping in mind the commercial sensitivity of such research, and the potential for collaborative projects between the FE and HE sectors.

135. In 2003, the global research firm Gartner, forecast that '…online learning will be the most widely used web application by 2005.' Now we are in 2005 that projection seems unlikely to be proved accurate, but there is likely to be a large future global market in e-learning and the Government must ensure that the UK does not miss the opportunity to be a part of this market. The UK needs to be at the forefront of understanding the global market for e-learning.

Support and Guidance for HEIs

136. A key responsibility for the Government, through HEFCE, is the support and guidance needed for HEIs entering the global e-learning market.

137. The original idea to establish the UK as a leading player in the market for online learning, building on its international reputation for high quality provision of HE, was widely supported by universities and colleges—many of whom were already involved in the provision of e-learning, both in the UK and in markets abroad.

138. Edinburgh's Interactive University (IU), for example, has a teaching programme that, over the past 18 months, has attracted 75,000 students from more than 23 countries.[86] This already includes approximately 1,200 HE students—this is in comparison to the 900 UKeU students. The IU is promoting the reputation of Scotland's leading HEIs abroad. Edinburgh University, Aberdeen University and Heriot-Watt are all offering courses to other countries. In contrast to UKeU, IU is a not-for-profit enterprise and reinvests in programmes to deliver high quality education. As noted by the Minister for Higher Education, branding will have played its part in the success of the IU so far:

One of the reasons is certainly the one the Chairman touched on, which is that Edinburgh is a very clear brand, people want to be associated with it. There was no fog surrounding what it might end up as.[87]

139. Whatever the precise reasons for the success of the IU, the Government, through HEFCE, is responsible for identifying the successful practice that is operating both in the UK and abroad and ensuring that such good practice is shared across the sector. This Committee recommends that the Government, through HEFCE, develop clear guidelines and methods of supporting the sector in entering the global e-learning market—including guidance and support on joint-ventures, branding, market information, pedagogy, systems technology and any other information, advice, guidance, and support they might need.

140. In evidence HEFCE said that they believed the future for e-Universities was to support groups of universities that are developing e-learning capabilities instead of having one single e-University to develop everything. Sir Howard Newby said:

'That, therefore, puts individual universities or, if you wish, small groups of universities at the forefront of this, rather than having a single e-university attempting to develop, market and sell on behalf of all of the sector.'[88]

141. The Government has not yet clarified its thinking in this area, and has not identified the lessons it has learnt from the UKeU project.

'I have to admit to this committee that I am still very unclear about this particular project, UKeU. I think we have learned some lessons from it but, whether or not we are going to become great world players, if indeed there are going to be great world players in this area, which I think is a different matter altogether, we ought to have enough humility to ask ourselves if the original idea, exciting though it was, was not a little too ambitious.'[89]

142. The Government clearly does need to draw lesson from what has happened with UKeU. The most harmful outcome for the UK would be for the failure of UKeU to put off other collaborative ventures in e-learning. The global e-learning market is currently estimated to be worth £18 billion.[90] We recommend that the Government, through HEFCE, clarifies how it intends to invest in and support collaborative ventures in e-learning both across the HE sector, and between the FE and HE sector, in a way that provides equal opportunity and advantage to all those who would wish to be involved in the global market for e-learning.

143. A recent report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) concluded that the future of e-learning in the UK lies in the need for a bottom-up development of blended learning within departments inside our HEIs. The report found that it was the human infrastructure that was the most important part of e-learning strategies within HEIs—not the technology. It was essential that academics had ownership of progress in e-learning within their departments and key individuals were given the opportunity to drive things forward. It also recognised a the force from 'student pull' as IT literate students enter HE with certain expectations. The report concluded:

'A revolution is under way, and nearly all HEIs in the UK are part of it. Given clear aims, good advice, appropriate help, professional work, and a paced approach, rapid progress should be made. The UK has learnt from its past: the grand initiative era is over. An HEI needs good appropriate pedagogy, sound professional resource, and appropriate planning structures for eL within a coherent institutional framework and infrastructure. It must enunciate that framework for itself and implement it though local infrastructure and with national advice. The role of national bodies is to ensure that such advice is appropriately available, and that those working in eLearning can learn from the experience of others.'[91]

144. The findings of this inquiry concur with HEPI's conclusions. Whilst recognising the important role the Government has to play in providing support, information and guidance for e-learning to develop within HEIs, we conclude that the Government's role in providing an overarching national strategy for e-learning is vital to ensure consistency, coherence, and clarity of purpose in developments across the sector. The Government, through HEFCE, must clarify its national strategy for developing e-learning in the UK and how it intends to invest in and support e-learning across the HE sector in a way that provides coherent progress.

71   Q 459 Back

72   Q 457 Back

73   DfES (2003) 'The future of higher education,' White Paper on Higher Education, Department for Education and Skills. Back

74   Ev 5, para 31 Back

75   Q 136 Back

76   Q 456 Back

77   HEFCE publication, 2000 (00/43) Back

78   Q 465 Back

79   Q 469 Back

80   Q 563 Back

81   Q 567 Back

82   Q 571 Back

83   'The online revolution, mark II', The Guardian, 13 April 2004 Back

84   HEFCE publication 2000, (00/43) Back

85   Q 461 Back

86   'Top Scholar', Times Higher Education Supplement, 19 October 2004 Back

87   Q 474 Back

88   Q 136 Back

89   Q 460 Back

90   Times Higher Education Supplement, 19 October 2004 Back

91   Spent force or revolution in progress? eLearning after the eUniversity, Higher Education Policy Institute, 2005. Back

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