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Orlando, Florida

In a very funny low budget British movie called ‘Clockwise’, John Cleese plays a school principal with an obsession about punctuality who is asked to give a keynote at a conference. By mistake, he gets on the wrong train, and the rest of the film is about him trying to get to the conference on time. With less than an hour to go, and stuck in a field miles from the conference, and with one last chance to get there, he says: ‘It’s not the despair that destroys you, it’s the hope.’

I thought about this when I gave a talk about the hopes and reality of e-learning at the Association for the Advancement of Computers in Education eLearn 2010 conference in Orlando last week.

AACE conference, Orlando

I was a keynote speaker on the Thursday. My topic was ‘Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning.’ It was no coincidence that this also happens to be the title of the forthcoming book I am writing with Albert Sangra, of the Open University of Catalonia (due out in the spring of 2011).

The talk covered the following topics:

  • the challenge for public universities
  • goals for learning technology/e-learning
  • 11 case studies
  • criteria for measuring the integration of technology into teaching
  • how institutions planned for e-learning
  • how institutions organized for e-learning
  • quality assurance processes
  • resource allocations
  • training and professional development
  • barriers to change
  • recommendations
  • conclusions

A copy of the slides can be obtained from here (10 MBs).

Hope and despair

A major point in both the presentation and the book is that overall few higher education institutions have met at least my expectations of what e-learning can achieve. My hopes are as follows:

The intelligent use of technology will enable higher education institutions to:

  • accommodate more students
  • improve learning outcomes
  • provide more flexible access
  • at less cost.

From our 11 case studies and a literature review though, we conclude:

  • investment in learning technologies and support staff is increasing, without replacing activities, hence costs are going up
  • there is no evidence of improved learning outcomes
  • there is a failure to meet best quality standards for e-learning in some institutions.

But don’t give up yet

This is not yet cause for despair, because it was clear from our studies that while universities and colleges have increased flexible access, they have not been ambitious enough in their goals for e-learning, focusing more on ‘enhancing’ the quality of classroom teaching (adding cost) rather than redesigning teaching to meet new needs (improving learning).

We also found that the management of e-learning could be tightened up a great deal, particularly in the area of resource allocation and the costing of different kinds of teaching.

Most of all, lack of training in teaching and in management was resulting in uninspired applications of technology for teaching, and leading to increased costs through the need for lots of learning technology support staff. Better training could yield huge benefits.

Also, there may be no evidence, one way or the other, of improved learning outcomes, but this is because no attempt has been made to relate investment in technology to either improved outcomes or lower costs. More ambition, and better evaluation procedures and methods of tracking costs, may indeed show benefits (or losses).

So we need to keep trying. After all, in the movie, John Cleese did manage to make it in time.


  1. There are two models for e-learning development.

    The first is to allow classroom teachers to experiment with technology in their classrooms. The result is classroom teaching with a technology add-on (LCD projectors instead of overhead projectors).

    The second is to skip completely to a full distance model, and often to have the materials developed by classroom instructors. The result is classroom teaching without the classroom. (For example, read the web site, answer questions 1-10, scan the answers as jpegs and put them in the drop box).

    Although I have often heard the suggestion that e-learning has passed the “early adopter” stage, I would argue we have barely conceptualized how technology can enhance learning. There are very few efforts to foster a critical mass of professionals who design, deliver, analyse and, more importantly, experiment with technology enhanced instruction. Until that time e-learning will continue to languish.

    I love the quote by the way.


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