Putting e-learning at top of class

8 Sep 2005

Distance-learning technologies that open up access to education are going to be vital in improving Ireland’s educational standing and create the knowledge basis for economic success in the future. This was the key message from Michael Kelly, chairman of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), during last week’s international networking event for Minerva, the EU’s open and distance-learning programme, at Dublin Castle.

Kelly said it was the HEA’s stated ambition that Ireland was in the top 10 OECD countries in terms of educational performance but to achieve this the issue of access needed to be addressed. “We have to ensure learners of any age are given the opportunity to succeed and thrive in the digital age,” he said.

Jim Devine, director of Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, who gave the keynote presentation, said the falling cost of technology, the spread of broadband and the rise of digital living had created a seismic shift in education whereby students had the resources and skills to create and manage their own learning materials, generating their own ‘e-portfolios’. “In terms of education, process is as important as product and we’ve got to give students free rein to develop their own content,” he said.

He pointed out, however, that while many universities had implemented a learning management system and become involved in innovative e-learning projects, the jury was still out as to whether or not technology was transforming the learning experience or simply e-enabling existing teaching methods. “The question is: to what extent are e-learning and digital technologies anticipating and underpinning innovation in teaching itself?”

The issue of how e-learning is being adopted and used by the third-level sector was also dealt with by Vinny Wade, director of the Centre for Learning Technology at Trinity College Dublin. He pointed out that in the past decade virtually every third-level college in Ireland had implemented an e-learning system of one sort or other in order to comply with government objectives about promoting social inclusion and lifelong learning and to provide wider access to education. But despite the proliferation of systems that, for example, allow students to access lecture notes and take part in tutorials on the web, Wade said e-learning was still not core to universities’ teaching and learning — and this was the main challenge that lay ahead.

He believed universities looking to develop an e-learning strategy could learn a lot from the successes — and mistakes — made by other institutes around the world. “There’s a lot of failure out there and when you fail it’s expensive.”

He also noted the danger of believing, as some university administrators do, that e-learning can save their college a lot of money. “There’s a myth that e-learning is cheaper than face-to-face teaching. This has been disproved on many occasions. There is a considerable investment needed here.”

While universities were getting on with the task of deploying e-learning systems, schools are only beginning to grapple with how to deploy and make best use of technology. This was the main message from Michael Hallissy and John Hurley, co-directors of the Diageo Liberties Learning Initiative, which aims to engage socially disadvantaged people in inner-city Dublin with technology.

Expressing concern over the lack of an overall policy regarding ICT in schools within the Department of Education and Science, they said the much-trumpeted arrival of broadband in schools was only “one part of the jigsaw” and that a lot more thought needed to be given to what content should fill that fat pipe.

That same content issue needed to be addressed if Ireland as a whole was to become a digitally literate society, noted Hallissy. “There have to be some meaningful programmes that people can tap into. We shouldn’t be too concerned about the pipes that go into homes; it’s what you do with those pipes that matters.”

Pictured is Michael Kelly, chairman of the Higher Education Authority, speaking at the e-learning seminar in Dublin last week

By Brian Skelly