The Guardian - US universities lead the way in e-learning

The Guardian - US universities lead the way in e-learning

Shola Adenekan looks at what Britain can learn from the American experience of creating virtual universities.

Shola Adenekan
Friday August 27, 2004

The Guardian

Selena Majeed was originally enrolled on a traditional classroom-based degree programme, but because her husband's career in cancer genetics require the family to move around, she has to find a college that will suit her family's hectic lifestyle.

In order to complete the last two-years of her Bachelor degree she enrolled on an online degree course run by the University of Maryland University College (Umuc).

The 30-year-old Canadian says being given the opportunity to obtain a degree online has allowed her the flexibility she needs.

"Don't get me wrong it is by no means any easier than going to a traditional classroom, in fact, I find it more demanding," she says. "Having said that, when I pass a class with an 'A' grade I honestly feel a lot more accomplished than I ever did in a traditional classroom."

"Having had this experience has convinced me that I'll go on to complete a Masters degree in the same fashion while being able to balance the demands of my life."

Students like Ms Majeed symbolise the phenomenal growth of online education in America. While virtual education has suffered a great setback in Britain with the recent collapse of the premier UK E-university, enrolment for online courses the other side of the Atlantic has shot up by almost 20% this year; one in ten postsecondary students will take at least one course online.

According to the Sloan Consortium - a not-for-profit organisation of about 700 higher learning institutions whose mission is to improve online education - more than 1.6 million US students took online courses in 2002. More than a third of higher education institutions and 97% of public universities offer courses online.

Eduventures, a Boston-based educational research firm predicts that this year alone, the e-learning market will top $5bn. The boom in e-learning is likely to continue as politicians at both arms of the Congress consider giving online students equal amount of federal financial aid as students on traditional learning routes.

It has not always been smooth-sailing for the American online education market. Many prominent universities have to weather rough storms along the way. Despite its close ties with Wall Street and its long experience of running professional and continuing education programmes, New York University (NYU) was forced to close its distance-learning company - NYUonline - in November 2001.

While NYUonline blamed the failure on the economy, several experts say its business plan was inadequate and that it could not break from its academic roots to operate as a business.

As media spotlights fall on the failure of some prominent virtual ventures, many administrators began to see them as potential dotcom busts. Princeton University for example, hastily dropped out of an e-education alliance with Stanford, Yale and Oxford universities.

But through radical rethinking and good strategies many universities have managed to turn things around for the better.

Online programs at traditional universities like Umuc and the University of Massachusetts (UMass), which had built organically on existing distance-learning programs, are quietly booming as not-for-profit ventures.

At UMass for example, revenues and enrolments have grown 220% and 143% respectively since 2001, making $14m in the process. In the 2004 academic year, online programmes conferred 151 degrees with students from all over the United States and around the globe.

"Fortunately, UMassOnline did not make the mistakes made by other universities," says David Gray, the CEO of UMassOnline. "What really failed for those "experiments" was the notion of running them as spin-offs for profit, separate from the university."

Mr. Gray believes successful online institutions succeed because they know their core competencies, and that it is enterprises that go outside these competencies that usually experience disaster.

"Online programmes are easier to sell when they are closely tied with a particular university. Students want a degree programme, a community of peers and alumni, and a reputable institution's name on their diplomas and CVs."

When he was the dean of NYU's school of continuing and professional studies, Gerald A. Heeger created the idea of NYUonline. He is now responsible for running the award-winning online education arm of Umuc, he says the lesson learned from the failed programme is that successful development of online learning requires an enormous amount of "institutional learning".

"About how one works with students in a distant format, about how one works with faculty, about the pedagogy of online. The transition to becoming an institution which provided the courses, educational and administrative services that comprise the modern university education online is a very difficult one. Umuc has worked very hard at this and it is still a challenge."

The man now running virtual education at New York University is Dr. Robert Manuel. He explains how when he took over he had to rethink the university's approach to offering higher education online.

"We touched on the need to conceive a new experience. Many of the things that make up a good campus experience were replicated online. We conceived this experience from the students' perspectives by breathing a lot of humanity into our courses."

Dr Manuel says NYU moved from a technology-focused solution to an educational solution supported by technology. For instance, the university took Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and integrated it into its teaching programmes so that students can communicate conveniently at any time with academic staff and their faculties.

That change in strategy is already bearing fruits. According to Dr Manuel, student retention rate is now 90% and enrolment on virtual graduate programmes is growing rapidly.

"We also provide regular training for our lecturers, faculty staff and students so as to enable a better online education experience," he added.

As the technologies that support distance education mature and become widely embraced, experts say the focus on the tools and the geographic distance at which they are utilised is likely to decrease.

"Over the next five years, it wouldn't surprise me to see the term "distance education" fade or morph into "distributed education" or perhaps simply "education," says UmassOnline's Mr Gray. "Our fascination with the web as an exciting new medium for learning and collaboration will most likely give way to seeing it as a common utility that people make use of routinely."

Testimony to this is the fact that online courses at universities like Umass and Umuc allow students to log on when it is most convenient to participate in a class, their fellow members do not have to be online simultaneously.

Mr Gray says in order to attain the similar level of success reached by American virtual colleges, British universities need to recognise that community needs, cost containment and generating revenues are the universal benefits of online programmes.

"My advice is stay true to your values and institutional mission so that the goals for your virtual university are compatible with your traditional institution," he says. "You must stay attuned to and aligned with the market-place."

NYU's Dr Manuel enjoins British universities to understand the difference between online and classroom-based education and then find ways to create necessary support for their staff and students.

"These supports are different from one another," he says. "You especially need to provide adequate support for students so that they do not feel isolated."

Date: 08/27/04

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