Irish universities cannot ignore global e-learning

5 Nov 2004

Despite the many challenges of implementing an effective e-learning system, Irish universities that ignore this educational trend risk getting left behind by the legion of online universities springing up around the world, a US e-learning guru told an e-learning symposium at Dublin City University yesterday.

At the event organised by Universities Ireland, the all-Ireland representative association for the university sector, Dr Andy DiPaolo, executive director of the Stanford Centre for Professional Development at Stanford University, noted that the internet had transformed the learning experience forever. “In the industrial age we went to school; in the communications age the school comes to us.” He added that universities ignored this trend at their peril. “The danger is if you don’t engage in e-learning, what are the consequences of that decision?”

Speaking afterwards to, DiPaolo suggested that rather than developing e-learning courses for the local market, Irish universities needed to have a broader vision of how they might fit into the global e-learning market. “Ireland may be able to occupy a niche within the broader international marketplace. One possibility would be Celtic history or another cultural aspect that would be of interest to other parts of the world that only you Ireland could provide. So I think if you only look at doing it for Irish universities it would probably be a mistake; you need to think in a broader, bigger way where access to higher education in Ireland would be valued by other people around the world.”

He noted how his own university’s e-learning arm, Stanford Online, had entered a partnership whereby engineering students from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore sit courses at Stanford via two-way video over the internet. “They’re not coming to the campus but they are able to access coursework and faculty members from 6,000 miles away,” he pointed out. Closer to home, he referred to Scotland’s hugely successful e-learning initiative, the Interactive University. The product of a joint investment by Herriot-Watts University, private industry and Enterprise Scotland, the online university had enrolled more than 60,000 online students in 20 countries during its first 18 months.

Commenting on general trends within education, DiPaolo noted that learning was moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach to one that was being increasingly personalised to individuals. “What we’re seeing is a strong consumer mentality emerging where people are making choices based on a whole set of variables that are unique to them,” he said, noting that concepts such as variable pricing are starting to be demanded by students who want to be charged only for the modules they take and not the entire course. Likewise, students are also looking for greater flexibility about where and when they learn – a factor that was driving the e-learning market forward, he said.

DiPaolo advised that universities should set up online courses not as a money-making venture but as a way of enhancing the reputation of the institution, reaching out to industry and attracting students who otherwise would not be able to participate because of work commitments or whatever. He also advised universities to start with less ambitious programmes and build on them over time so as to avoid overstretching themselves and to focus on building a unified brand for themselves covering both online and offline elements.

Also speaking at the symposium was Professor Diana Laurillard, head of the e-Learning Strategy Unit at the Department for Employment and Skills in the UK, who said that most universities were still at the very early stages of developing online learning systems. She said that the educational sector was failing to exploit the full capabilities of technology that allows teaching to become more engaging and interactive for students. “We’ve got to engage the e-learner in content that helps them learn rather than just teaching at them.”

By Brian Skelly