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E-Learning in Higher Education – Where Next?

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E-learning has opened up new education and revenue opportunities for the UK's universities and colleges. Tim Collin Director of European Sales for WebCT looks at how institutions can consolidate and develop their success for the future.


Since it was introduced in the1990s, e-learning has been growing rapidly at post secondary institutions around the world.

At leading colleges and universities, the majority of courses are now e-enabled, and nearly all students take at least one course with a technology-supported component.

The growth in demand for e-learning today is so great, existing infrastructures at many universities are not scalable enough to meet today’s needs and tomorrow’s demands. Institutions are now at a critical juncture.

They need to rethink the way they are supporting technology-enhanced education and adopt new strategies that will not only meet the demands fore-learning from both students and academics, but support institutional development for the forthcoming years.

The Competitive World of Higher Education

All higher education institutions today are challenged with boosting the student learning experience and driving greater success.

In the UK, however, the introduction of tuition fees has put an even greater price on education from a student’s perspective and as such, they are demanding even higher quality out of their educational instruction than ever before.

Market forces have also come into play, bringing more competition to the higher education market.

Universities and colleges now face the challenges of attracting more students and offer flexible degree programmes and more innovative methods of educational delivery to take into account that today’s student is more likely to want to fit their studies around part-time jobs.

Online learning is fast becoming the panacea to meet these challenges – away to drive down the cost of education, enhance the learning experience for students, attract new students and facilitate better standards of education, teaching and research.

E-learning

The flexibility of e-learning has already attracted many companies in the corporate world who have employed e-learning to adapt their training strategies to meet the needs of today's busy employee and increase productivity levels.

Similarly, universities and colleges wanting to encourage higher student participation and improve results are finding e-learning to be an ideal solution.

Whilst there is still a place for classroom teaching, e-learning brings a range of benefits to both students and institutions alike.

E-learning eliminates the need for students to physically be on campus to learn, which allows institutions to attract a much wider range of students from around the world, bringing a more diverse experience to learning, and increasing enrolment figures.

E-learning can also offer higher quality learning in a number of areas. Language students can benefit from listening to difficult words and phrases being pronounced through MP3 files, and look up new words through online dictionaries.

E-learning brings text books to life and by taking a blended learning approach, students still have face-to-face interactions with their instructors along with a web-enhanced component to a class.

Online discussion forums, email and chat-rooms enable students to interact more freely with both their tutors and other students, to share ideas and learn from their course colleagues.

E-learning can also bring a powerful new dimension to guest lecturing. Guest lectures form an important part of many course structures and give students the rare opportunity to meet and learn from industry leaders or practitioners.

The guests are able to contribute content online, so students can still benefit from their expertise, even if they are unable to make the lecture.

Moving Forward

Many institutes today however, have out grown their current e-learning approach.
Problems have started to emerge in many institutions.

Often the scope and extent of e-learning usage is underestimated by the administrative departments at universities, which leads to the inability to plan for future growth or to ensure that necessary funds are available to sustain this.

The increase in online usage has also placed a huge strain on existing technology systems, institutes are finding themselves having to constantly replace system servers to keep up with e-learning demands.

Multiple systems are often in place at many universities, which have become increasingly untenable from an administration perspective, and, tutors are taking longer to assemble course material online using over-burdened systems.

The Enterprise Approach

Many of these problems have occurred because the rapid growth of e-learning has not been supported by a strategy.

Moving forward, institutes need to adopt enterprise-level e-learning systems, however, they need to ensure that a number of components are addressed in order to ensure success.

Enterprise e-learning begins with a strategic commitment to support technology-enabled education across the entire institute.

Academics, senior administrators and technical staff need to collaborate and recognise, accept and promote e-learning as critical to institutional goals.

To ensure success, e-learning needs to be a mission-critical activity, complete with executive leadership and funding that reflects its importance to the success of the institution.

The technological demands of students and academic staff heighten and change as technology becomes an increasingly vital part of their daily activities. Institutions must ensure that the technology solution they select to underpin e-learning is robust, flexible, reliable, ensures 100% up time and provides user support.

An institute level content strategy must be defined. An enterprise approach acknowledges that the development of electronic academic content is the largest investment in e-learning.

To minimise expenses of content creation, institutions should define mechanisms for content development, sharing and reuse, and implement technology to streamline these tasks.

Finally, e-learning needs to be measurable. With increasing amounts of e-learning activity comes detailed quantitative data about student activity during the learning process.

An enterprise approach enables institutes to create measurement processes, to analyse the uptake and success rate of e-learning and provide information that will enable the institute to readdress its e-learning needs and consistently improve its processes.

Driving E-Learning at Coventry University

Coventry University has recently migrated to an enterprise e-learning system and is reaping the benefits. It boasts a student population of 20,000 with 17,000 based on campus.

It was one of the first UK pioneers of e-learning, and uses a blend of classroom-based and online teaching.

Following a successful pilot in the business school in 1998, virtual learning was extended to all its 2,000 modules by September 1999, including subjects as diverse as performing arts, physiotherapy and aeronautical engineering.

The university has seen student participation in online lessons grow each year and has witnessed more cohesive relationships developing between students and staff through the online tutor sessions and discussion groups.

The current uptake of online learning is 50%; however, by the end of this year, the university anticipates it will rise to 60%.

A Competitive Advantage

As universities throughout the world are demonstrating, e-learning is certainly the education delivery model of the future.

However, in order for e-learning to drive future institutional success, the further education sector needs to look ahead and act now if it wants to meet the challenges of the next few years head on.

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