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An introduction to UKeU – interview


John Beaumont, Chief Executive of UKeU, talked to TrainingZONE about his organisation's development and where it fits into the education and training market.

TrainingZONE How did UKeU come into being?

John Beaumont In February 2000 universities, the government and other groups were looking towards exploitation of ICT, and thinking that there were surely ways of trading on established status by taking. There followed 18 months of looking at models. The they formed a company, to ensure that the whole process would be market-led and responsive to demand. It was important not to create this as a new university: all our students are students of the university that offers the course, not of UKeU.

And then there was the investment of £62 million, recognizing that e-learning has a major upfront cost for the platform and courses. The size of that investment showed that the scale was recognised. The universities are our shareholders.

TrainingZONE Do you think Higher Education can learn from the e-learning mistakes made by organisations running work-based training programmes?

John Beaumont We started at a good time. We were able to begin by reviewing e-learning, and noted its poor reputation and poor implementation, poor content creation rather than poor technology, and often poor service support. To do all of this right is expensive, you can't make fast bucks with e-learning. You compromise quality if you cut costs. In web-based training the same rules apply: it all goes back to learning objectives, content and support.

TrainingZONE Have the universities been skeptical about offering their courses online?

John Beaumont We've gone out to ask what courses people want around the world. We've now got the top-branded universities, so there has been demand to work with us. There is also increasing recognition of universities' role in lifelong learning. Online is just an extension of this, it hasn't come out of the blue.

TrainingZONE Do they see you as potentially a competitor as well as a partner?

John Beaumont Most UK students will still want to go to college. We are looking more at the global market, we are not looking to cannibalise the universities' home market but to extend the addressable market. And for instance we only do one Bio=Informatics course created by one university, we aren't looking to create further competition between universities with out courses.

TrainingZONE Do you train academics in developing online courses?

John Beaumont The sort of people who have experience of instructional design are educationalists, not subject specialists. We are putting these groups together. Initially there was a supply driven movement. Now we do rely on the design specialists. But of course we are nothing without the universities, Sun is essential to us and we rely on Fujitsu for 24 hour service provision. We manage all of this and make sure it's responsive to the market.

TrainingZONE What has it been like working (and harmonising) with so many partners?

John Beaumont It has gone well. We started with a blank slate, and worked hard at keeping things going in parallel.

TrainingZONE How will you maintain student interest and ensure they complete the course?

John Beaumont We looked at why students drop out and worked from there. It's all about service and delivery, on the same issues where it had gone wrong in the past. Unlike most universities we do have a customer service manager. And we put a lot of emphasis on asking for and paying attention to constant feedback.

TrainingZONE With online degrees, if you don’t meet the student how can you be sure it is them and not a friend/relative that is completing the coursework?

John Beaumont E-learning doesn't really have these issues any more. There is software that checks for plagiarism and style. Some courses will have exams in designated locations. It's not 100% foolproof, but neither are universities' current systems. We are confident that this won't be a serious problem.

TrainingZONE Do you have a standard set-up with a fixed level of tutor support for all courses, or does it depend on the subject?

John Beaumont Well that varies by course. And with each it's driven by quality assurance aspects of the university. We do make sure that individual tutors are assigned to individual students and the whole system is clear and effective.

TrainingZONE Are you offering a full range of vocational and non-vocational courses?

John Beaumont We can offer anything a university offers. The subject areas so far are Business and Management, Health and Nursing, English Language, and Teacher Training. Some vocational areas may prove not to be suited to this kind of delivery, but otherwise we can offer a broad range.

TrainingZONE What kind of courses do you anticipate being most popular?

John Beaumont Business and Management, Science and Technology, Health, English Language and Law. There are different measures of popularity. We will judge by what makes money, but we maintain academic integrity and we will pay attention to how we are regarded.

TrainingZONE Do you think there are there any subject areas that won't work with e-learning?

John Beaumont E-learning isn't the whole answer. But with a full range of self-testing you can do a lot. You can't ever hope to cover everything. This is not a panacea, but on the other hand we shouldn't exclude anything without exploring it.

TrainingZONE Are organisations in other countries developing similar systems?

John Beaumont This government has shown a lot of vision. There is no similar organization in the whole world, working like we do in a collective effort. It still has a cottage industry status overseas, while we are doing something more effective. There are corporate universities and other enterprises, but nothing so bold. This is very helpful to us. Here we have government backing, global technology and respected university brands.

TrainingZONE How difficult was it to develop a platform for UKeU? What's special about it?

John Beaumont Dead easy! No, seriously, on this scale it's never going to be easy, and with such a scope we also had to go it alone, to create our own comprehensive and integrated system. Earlier on it was supply-driven so we asked pedagogical and technical questions. Then it became more of a systems integration issue, and it was launched the Saturday before last.

TrainingZONE How do you see the e-learning market developing?

John Beaumont On the macro level, the numbers will be massive. But against that, who's going to win? In our area we could do with more major players to help create this market. We don't know what the 11 year-olds of now will be thinking in ten years and more, and how they will learn, so we probably need to fill this out by asking them. What we make available for free will help to stimulate students and lecturers, so that's always an issue.

TrainingZONE What do you think will be the next technological development to enhance learning, or to offer a different channel?

John Beaumont Mobility will be important, but not so much in terms of portable delivery mechanisms as a card to give you your personalized portal wherever you connect it. This is really more about access to service than new technology. Otherwise digital TV could become important for reaching the developing world. Technology will continue to enable the extension of market reach.


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