E-learning from old mistakes

30 Sep 2003

Some years ago, the US educational system jumped on the emerging computer-based training bandwagon and spent untold millions installing computer labs in schools nationwide. The result was the disastrous ‘drill-and-kill’ e-learning-by-rote culture that poisoned students and teachers alike against using technology in teaching for half a generation.

This cautionary tale was related by Pat McDonagh, the millionaire entrepreneur behind Riverdeep and other well-known technology firms, at a First Tuesday panel discussion on e-learning in Dublin last week. A true believer in the ability of technology to transform the learning experience, McDonagh argued that e-learning’s teething problems were indicative of an immature rather than a failed technology. “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 in the future,” he predicted.

Like McDonagh, Sean Rowland, executive chairman of Hibernia College in Dublin, felt there were lessons to be learned from the US, particularly in the way some universities decided to ditch traditional classroom teaching in favour of putting everything online. He cautioned against seeing e-learning as suitable for all educational situations and advocated a blended learning approach where e-learning is used alongside traditional classroom-based education. “It’s like when televisions first came out and they were going to replace everything. There is a role for technology in education but it should not be an exclusive one,” he said.

Dr Vincent Wade, head of e-learning at Trinity College Dublin, agreed: “Universities need to decide what they want to use e-learning for rather than let e-learning dictate their strategy. That’s how some universities got into trouble.”

The panel also discussed where the future growth opportunities lay for Irish e-learning providers. Professor Terri Scott, managing director of Entrepreneurship and Enterprise at Invest Northern Ireland, felt there were significant niche opportunities for content 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 argued.

Even in recessed markets, where corporate training cutbacks had stunted the growth of the e-learning industry, there still were openings. “In a downturn, training will always be a casualty but public spending in areas such as defence, healthcare and education won’t be hit to the same degree,” she said, citing the case of one Belfast university that was now offering foreign students the opportunity to complete part of their degree online as well as on campus.

Rowland argued that, above all, Irish e-learning providers needed to play to their strengths and have a clear idea of their market. “We have a highly educated and creative workforce and are still fairly price competitive, but it’s essential that we have a strong business model and that we are clear and focused on what we want to do.”

His advice to e-learning hopefuls was not to “throw out too broad a net because you’ll end up just catching a bit of everything”.

The panel was generally agreed that Ireland was too small a market to sustain most e-learning companies and they would need to go abroad to develop their business. Dr Brian Sutton, executive director of the UK’s LearnDirect, a publicly funded organisation that aims to bring the benefits of e-learning to the public through 2,000 learning centres throughout the UK, urged e-learning firms to think globally. “In the e-world why would you be thinking about national borders?” he asked.

Johnny Parkes, former head of courseware developer Electric Paper, which was recently acquired by a competitor, Third Force, agreed but asserted that the experience and understanding of e-learning in Ireland meant it could function as a test market for new products. “E-learning companies could do a pilot programme in the Irish market, prove the concept and then launch it internationally,” he suggested.

Parkes conceded, however, that the e-learning industry was in a trough and that it was now “more difficult to convince people that e-learning is worth spending money on”. He added that in a cost-conscious market, product credibility was becoming increasingly important and providers that were able to measure and prove the effectiveness of their e-learning content would be most likely to succeed.

In a discussion of the obstacles facing the sector, McDonagh felt it was marketing and commercial skills rather than product quality that were holding it back. “We’ve got some very good content but the challenge is how to build a sustainable business. It’s a business challenge more than an e-learning challenge – it’s about money and management … the usual problems.” He also felt that the concept of public private partnerships had not been successfully transplanted to the e-learning sector because of the “culture gap” between industry and academia.

Looking ahead, he predicted that partnerships between e-learning companies would become increasingly common as, in his view, individual e-learning providers would be unable to deliver successfully every aspect of e-learning – content, learning management systems and associated services.

The panel was agreed that connectivity was among a number of challenges that needed to be addressed in the areas of content, technology and service delivery if the potential of the sector was to be fully realised.

High-speed internet infrastructure featured prominently on the panel’s checklist of must-haves. “Connectivity is very important,” said Sutton. “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