Well, it’s the end of the year, and so why not a personal retrospective of the worldwide state of e-learning at the end of 2008? I did this originally for the European Eqibelt project, based in Croatia, but thought I would share it with you all. Once I have had some Christmas pudding, I might be somewhat more optimistic.

First, there is a lot of activity and an increasing number of professors and instructors using e-learning, all around the world. In the USA, online enrolments have increased on an average of about 12 per cent per annum for the last five years (Allen and Seaman, 2008), compared with an average of about 2 per cent per annum of overall enrolments. Just over 25 per cent of all post-secondary students in the USA are taking at least one course fully online.

Second, many institutions have stopped thinking strategically about e-learning, seeing it is an everyday and normal part of teaching. The issue then is how best to teach, and then e-learning will be used as part of that. This may seem to be progress, in that the use of technology is now being taken for granted. However, the danger is that many of the issues around the use of technology don’t get adequately addressed when it is ‘buried’ within normal curriculum discussions.

This concern has been raised in two different ways. One is a lack of return on investment. The European Commissioner responsible for this area expressed this concern at the 2008 EDEN conference in Lisbon. He pointed out that national governments and the European Commission have invested over a billion dollars in ICTs for education, but have seen little change or improvement as a result.

The other, related, issue is the lack of innovation. The World Economic Forum’s Global Advisory Committee on Technology and Education at its recent meeting in Dubai (November, 2008) commented:
‘Education is in a state of transition from a traditional model to one where technology plays an integral role.  However, technology has not yet transformed education

•     Student expectations about the educational experiences (e.g., connected, participatory, engaging) are not being realized
•     Students are digital “natives” while teachers are “laggards”
•     Rather than introducing 21st century skills, technology is often being used to automate outdated education paradigms
•     Technology changes what students/citizens need to learn (e.g., analysis over rote memorization)’

In other words, technology is in the main just being added-on to the traditional classroom experience. Thus, while there are ‘pockets’ of innovation, technology is not being used for systematic change. This was well illustrated recently by a Ph.D. study of ICT integration in five European universities by Albert Sangra Morer, of the Open University of Catalonia (2008). He found few if any institutions had a formal strategic plan for ICTs and its impact on teaching and learning, and none had any way of evaluating or measuring performance resulting from ICT investment.

What would true innovation look like? Well, it would be a break from the 9 to 5, block timetabling of classes. With students able to access teaching and learning anywhere at any time, there is no need to have everyone coming to the same place at the same time, every day. This is not to say there is no role for the campus, but teaching could – and should – be organised quite differently from today’s predominantly 19th century model of education.

Where are the ‘pockets’ of innovation? The area with the most potential is the use of Web 2.0 tools, such as blogs, wikis, virtual worlds, and mobile technologies such as phones, cameras, and iPods, that allow learners to collect, create, share and evaluate their own learning materials. A second area where innovation is possible – but still very slow to develop – is the use of open educational resources. However, not for use by instructors too lazy to create their own teaching materials, but by students where instructors have created a learning environment that encourages learners, to seek, find, analyse and apply information appropriately.

Why is change and innovation through the use of technology so necessary in our education systems? Because the traditional methods are preparation for an industrial society that is fast vanishing. We need to use technology as an integral part of our teaching and learning activities to prepare learners for a knowledge-based society, where learning prepares for and matches the world of work, leisure and society. This is just not happening to any degree yet. Albert Sangra’s thesis provides some of the reasons for this, but they are pretty much well known: lack of incentives for institutions to change, lack of reward for instructors who improve their teaching, lack of management training for senior university administrators, and above all, a systemic failure by educators to understand the teaching implications of the knowledge-based society.

There: I feel better for that


Allen, I. E. and Seaman, J. (2008) Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008 Needham MA: Sloan Consortiun
Sangra, A. (2008) La Integració de les TICs a la Universitat: Models, Problemes i Reptes Unpublished Ph.D., Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, Spain.
World Economic Forum


  1. This is spot on. This is what many of us are trying to tell institutions, who in their harried states seem to feel that once they have their LMS installed, job done. To think that we collectively “got it right” with the LMS is simply untenable. Unfortunately, along with industrial models of education, our institutions are also hooked on industrial models of technology hosting and online identity, meaning they have to do it all themselves, which can only result in the increased marginalization of higher ed’s online learning efforts.

  2. Thank you! Nice post.

    … but isn’t this exactly what many academics have been pointing out for years? Is it that only now the message is reaching the decision-makers?

    I would also add to the list of reasons why things are not moving forward the prevailing conceptions of epistemology and metaphysics (in the “anglo-american-euro-tradition”) that are backing the status quo and existing power structures. However, we are now slowly – as you wrote – taking small steps to the right direction.

    Finally, I can’t help to do some shameless self-promotion of some old blog posts of mine:

    E-learning is dead. Long live learning – December 21 2004

    (Critical) history of ICT in education – and where we are heading? – June 23, 2005

    No one ever got fired for buying LMS – May 24, 2007

  3. It seems to me that innovation may come from people who collect and organize knowledge and use it to help communities of practice connect and solve problems. I host information related to poverty, workforce development, college and careers, as part of a library of knowledge intended to support the growth of volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs reaching inner cit y kids. Instead of focusing on students in a structured learning environment (K-16), my focus is on adults who might draw from this information for the rest of their lives.

    I think when universities begin to see their role of facilitating life-long problem solving and innovation among alumni, and community members, they may begin to innovate different uses of their resources.

    Thanks for the information you share.

  4. Thanks for your valuable insights, and that your post here provided some of the responses to my questions raised in the previous post.
    I found it fascinating in that sometimes both educators and learners are trying to catch up with the latest technology, but that technology is always ahead of even the digital natives, if not the teachers (the laggers). This happens especially when some of us (educators) are finding it difficult to squeeze everything (like Web 2.0 – blogs, wikis) into the curriculum. So, which should be the focus of learning in university or tertiary education institution – technology? or e-learning? or Web2.0?

    Also, timetabling of classes are required by higher and further educational institutions (university and colleges alike), and learners are already accustomed to the typical structured class room teaching and learning. Unless there are major changes in the infrastructure and training of educators, it would be difficult to introduce e-learning into the mainstream courses.

    On some occasions, a few students are straightforward in asking: “Tell me the main points of this lesson, not with these learning activities”, hinting that they were not too interested in the learning activities, not matter how interesting they were. In other words, some learners are looking forward for key learning points, not the analysis, nor the evaluation of learning that are required in higher or further education. They may be looking for the qualification, not the deep learning, though I am not too sure….

    So, will Web2.0 be a better option for these learners? Should we still focus on the integration of ICT in the university?

    I will echo with your post in http://suifaijohnmak.wordpress.com
    Cheers. John
    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

  5. Hi, John.

    Many thanks to you (and the others) for the comments on this posting.

    Most institutions will feel that they already have integrated ICTs into their institutions, and to some extent this is true. However, there are still major challenges. I think the biggest is governance, or rather, how ‘big’ decisions are made about ICTs in universities and colleges.

    There is still a tendency in many institutions to see IT as a support service for other activities (research, administration, teaching and learning). Thus senior administrators rely on IT professionals to make recommendations, and these recommendations are judged on how well they meet the goals of other objectives, such as research or teaching.

    However, digital information and communication are now of themselves core goals and activities for universities. Developing skills in the use of ICTs is not just for technical support staff, but is also crucial for students and faculty, because this is how they do their core work now.

    As a result, questions need to be asked such as: what should be the university’s cyberpresence, and how will this be manifested? How should curriculum be shaped to meet the changing demands of a knowledge-based society? What are the physical and spacial boundaries of our activities? These are decisions that require the full participation of the university and college community. I’m not sure most universities are addressing ICT integration at this level yet.

    I don’t have space to go into this in more detail, but I can recommend two excellent publications that do (and I will shortly be writing brief reviews of both these books):

    Katz, R. (2008) The Tower and the Cloud EDUCAUSE (available at http://www.educause.edu/Books/635)

    Gilbert, J. (2005) Catching the Knowledge Wave? The Knowledge Society and the Future of Education Wellington NZ: NZER Press

  6. Hi Tony,

    Great to learn your views on e-learning and how the universities should address the ICT integration issue.
    I reckon this is a global issue in higher and further education.

    A recent 2008 Horizon Report detailed the following challenges relating to emerging technologies in higher education in priority order as determined by the Australia-New Zealand Advisory Board:
    Protectionism limits access to materials, ideas and collaborative opportunities
    Many teachers do not have the skills to make effective use of emerging technologies, much less teach their students to do so
    Assessment continues to be a significant barrier to adopting new tools and approaches
    Poor quality broadband limits options at school and at home.
    Protectionism limits:
    When it comes to the use of Web 2.0, many institutions have security concerns (though that’s a legitimate concern) on the use of some of the tools, and have banned such social tools (Facebook, Second Life, and Youtubes). As a teacher of logistics, I could only use these tools on a private basis, and would never promote its use on our premises as it couldn’t be used. So, it doesn’t seem to make sense to promote these to any of my learners if it is not allowed by the organisation. How could learning be fostered if that is the case? In other words, if the learners wish to make a video and put it on Youtubes, this would not be supported by the institution. Also, as Facebook is banned by the institution, no Facebook group could be formed.

    Teachers in the Higher and Further Education sectors are expected to make better use of the emerging technologies. The technical skills of teachers are too often out of step with those of their students. Related issues are the capabilities of the staff supporting teachers, which suffer from the same problem, limiting the options available for training.

    My observation is that not all teachers would really like to step out of their comfort zone. Some teachers still prefer to embrace the traditional face-to-face teaching instead. There may be needs for a blended learning approach in some cases. However, there are still some scepticism amongst some teachers in that they would lose their jobs if the courses are delivered on-line, and that may be the case. If one watches the video lectures presented by the professors of most of the top universities (Yale, Stanford or MIT), lectures seem to be the favourite format in mass education.

    So, my questions are: are there better ways of education and learning amongst those institutions? How are ICT integrated in those top universities?

    Happy New Year

    Kind regards.
    Sui Fai John Mak
    Teacher of Logistics
    I have included some information on my background in my blog. Please also check on Distribution Centre Training on previous research conducted.

  7. Interesting comments. We recruit online doctors for our company. We still have difficulty in making them aware of new technologies that we employ and how they can not only improve their service, but solidify their traditional approaches as well.

    Graham McAndrew
    Online Doctors


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