The e-learning missing link

Universities need to continue to embrace distance education through e-learning and not battle against the trend of students choosing to learn at home in their own time.

The education sector is shaping up as a leader in the rapidly evolving digital society. Large numbers of schools and institutions have embarked on tele-education extensions to their curriculum. Some are perhaps not particularly high-tech but, in general, great beginnings have been made. Video-based communication stimulated by high-speed networks, such as the emerging NBN and the well-established AARNet network, are linking up an increasing number of schools and other educational institutions.

The growth in e-books has been greatly stimulated by the government’s initiative to hand out laptops to schoolchildren. More than one million of these have now been distributed. South Korea is setting the scene – by 2015 all school books in that country will be e-books.

E-books are also a boon for many schools in developing countries where printed books are either not available or are hand-me-downs, some from as long ago as the 1950s and ’60s – donations from missionaries or organisations in the developed world.

More and more teaching staff – often stimulated by their students – are becoming conversant with the technology of the digital world, and an increasing number of schools now have dedicated IT staff to help teachers move into the brave new world of e-learning and tele-education.

Universities are at the forefront of these developments, as many of them depend to a large extent upon students that are linked remotely (even if the students live around the corner). Fewer and fewer students show up at tutorials and instead look for the information on their computers. Some teachers try to withhold e-information in an attempt to force their students to attend lectures, but these teachers are losing the battle. Universities will have to re-invent themselves and get rid of some of the centuries-old structures. Of course there does need to be a balance but there is no doubt that tele-education is becoming increasingly important.

Collaboration is another feature, with universities now operating well-established networks with colleagues around the world. Utilising the same principle students are setting up their own collaboration networks, this is far more attractive to them than the group-based structures that schools have implemented over the last few decades. These developments are opening up new levels of scope for both the institutions and the students and this is leading to far better results, often in a fraction of the time. Within such a collection of brains it is probable that what one person does not know, someone else in the peer group will. Furthermore, international experts are now available in every classroom around the world.

Universities are also showing the way in which business and political processes need to be changed – moving away from monopolies and vested (political) interest groups and transforming themselves into peer-to-peer networks. The way to remain competitive is via collaboration, rather than silo-based protectionism. Some companies, notably Google and Facebook – assisted by some of the leading universities, have more recently reorganised themselves so as to better embrace the open structures needed for the collaboration that leads to more and faster innovations.

Again quality of tele-education and e-learning projects varies between the various institutions, and progress also depends on the willingness/capability of individual lecturers, teachers and students  to actively participate in this process. Some universities are well-organised and have good IT support teams for their educational staff; others are lagging behind. And in most cases there is not yet a holistic approach – the silo mentality often prevails. But change is definitely on the way.

However, there is still a missing element, and that is for those organisations to reach out beyond their own institutions and their own students. The real breakthrough in e-learning will occur once the whole of society becomes involved in the process of e-learning – an extension of the lifelong learning concepts that have already been developed over previous decades. Here again, the most advanced would be the universities, since a great deal of their material is, in theory at least, e-ready. But there are no structures in place to reach out further.  Most educational systems below tertiary level do not even have outreach structures in place. We believe that all institutions should have such a service – even the local primary school. However, for the time being at least, it might have to be the more specialised distance learning institutions that will step into this space.

It is important to note that this is a structural education issue and not a technical one. Do educational institutions have the charter to move into society-based e-learning? Are governments working on education policies for such developments, or can those institutions investigate this as a business opportunity? What are the rules of engagement? What is the role of private industry/companies (employers) in all of this?

There is no doubt that these issues will be discussed and explored over coming years, but most important today is the fact that the education sector has well and truly embraced tele-education and that it will be in a good position to also take a leading role in the e-learning opportunities that are becoming available to society as a whole through their excellent educational knowledge basis.

Paul Budde is the managing director oBuddeComm, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy company, which includes 45 national and international researchers in 15 countries.