eLearning, Is it over?
by Jack M. Wilson, CEO, UMassOnline
Is it over? The eLearning boom that is.
Last year, almost every college and university announced that they were going on-line. Venture capitalists dumped billions into eLearning start-ups of all kinds. There were billions to be made and the first movers would be the ones to profit. Or so we thought. The new for-profit" start-ups dangled visions of millions of dollars in front of Presidents and Deans, and some jumped at the chance.
Pensare teamed up with Duke. Click2Learn teamed with NYU Online. Fathom teamed with XanEdu. The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School teamed with Caliber, a spin-off from Sylvan Learning. Cornell spun of eCornell to the consternation of faculty. Kaplan Ventures, Knowledge Universe, Pearson, and Sylvan Ventures made investments and acquisitions totaling $3.6 billion in 2000 and were expected to invest at least $2 billion additional in 2001 and 2002. UNext created Cardean University and partnered with Columbia, the London School of Economics, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Chicago. Reportedly Cardean had pledged to pay Columbia, and perhaps the others, $20 million dollars if they failed within five years. The exact structure of the contracts is not public. North Carolina, Harvard, and the University of Southern California went to University Access for help in getting online. Harcourt Higher Education was launched as a college in 2000 and confidently predicted 50,000 to 100,000 enrollments within five years."
That was then and this is now. Pensare is gone. Unable to attract the external financing that it had hoped for, Fathom had to obtain $20 million in financing internally. Cardean has laid off over half its work force this year and has asked the universities to restructure the business arrangement. Rumors suggest that "restructure" means that the universities are not getting their $ 20 million after all. Temple University, who had followed the crowd in creating a for-profit spin-off, quietly closed that spin-off without really ever activating it. They got more press for closing a virtually non-existent operation than most others get for running viable programs. Harcourt is gone after enrolling a total of 32 students in 2001. eCornell is open now, but with very small programs and drastically reduced expectations. Caliber has filed for bankruptcy. University Access has changed its name and withdrawn from higher education.
The Chronicle of Higher Education asks wryly Is anyone making money on on-line learning? The conclusion seems to be that there are indeed a few organizations that have demonstrated viability. The University of Maryland University College's effort UMUC-Online, Penn State's World Campus and the University of Massachusetts UMass Online represent campus based programs that have had some success. The University of Phoenix is everyone's poster child for the for-profit online university, either as a cautionary tale of a market mentality applied to higher education or as an investment success that demonstrates the viability of such an approach.
The very mixed picture is probably a manifestation of the confusion that reigns about the purpose and the place for on-line higher education.
It's about serving learners and not about using technology. First of all, designing educational experiences around technology is a foolish chase. You cannot possibly keep up with the technology. The paradox of technology enhanced education is that technology changes very rapidly and human beings change very slowly. It would seem to make sense for proponents of e-learning to begin with the students. At least that is a relatively slow moving target. Deployment of technology then becomes an exercise in applying a rapidly improving technology to a very consistent set of goals. Although this can be a challenge, it is a much more doable task. Over the last 15 years, the state of the art in