E-learning dream lives on

24 Sep 2003

Online training programmes such as masters courses aimed at Asian business executives will drive the next wave of growth for e-learning companies, according to a leading educationalist.

Speaking at the First Tuesday event in Dublin this week, Professor Terri Scott, managing director of Enterpreneurship & Enterprise at Invest Northern Ireland (InvestNI), dismissed fears that the growth days are over for the Irish e-learning sector, arguing instead that there are significant niche opportunities for content and technology providers in an increasingly global market. “The big opportunity is in the executive education market in countries such as China and India for branded English-language degrees,” she said.

Even in recessed markets, where corporate training cutbacks had stunted the growth of the e-learning industry, there were significant opportunities, she felt. “In a downturn, training will always be a casualty but public spending in areas like defence and healthcare won’t be hit to the same degree.” She gave the example of one Belfast third-level institute that was now offering foreign students the opportunity to complete part of their degree online as well as on-campus in Belfast.

Another panellist, Sean Rowland, executive chairman of Hibernia College in Dublin, was more cautiously optimistic about the future of the industry. In his view, e-learning had an important role to play in higher education, especially in conjunction with standard classroom-based lessons, but he stressed the need for a strong business model if Irish e-learning hopefuls were to be successful. He also said that they would need to train their sights on international markets. “Ireland is not a big enough market. The challenge is to take e-learning content abroad – and quality is the key thing.”

Pat McDonagh, the entrepreneur behind Riverdeep and other well-known e-learning firms, felt that while content would always be critical it would be technological innovation such as new delivery platforms that would drive the growth of the market. “Only in the last four to five years has the technology got to the point where it can affect the whole classroom dynamic [between pupils and teachers] … electronic platforms are going to play a massive role in delivering e-learning.” McDonagh also questioned whether a single e-learning provider would be able to provide the best content as well as the best learning management systems and associated services and predicted that partnerships between e-learning companies would become increasingly common.

The importance of technology was further highlighted by Dr Brian Sutton, executive director of LearnDirect, which aims to bring the benefits of e-learning to the British public through 2,000 learning centres throughout the UK. To Sutton, broadband is essential to realising the e-learning dream. “Connectivity is very important. Unless we’re a properly wired up country, we’re not going to have a knowledge- or an e-learning-based society.”

By Brian Skelly