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Issue 11 January 2008   Friday, January 25, 2008

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On-line and on course
A UKeU success
by Kevin Donovan

When the UKeU collapsed in 2004 amidst acrimony and recriminations it was easy to assume that everything it touched had become dross. Certainly there were various investigations and the initiative had the dubious distinction of bringing e-learning to the attention of headline writers. Most comment and analysis was unfavourable and the Wikipedia summary[1] seems damning: “In 2004 it was announced that the project should be wound up as it was a failure having cost £50m and recruited only 900 students. These received some of the most expensive degrees in history at £56,000 each".
 
At an early stage Computing magazine questioned the potential success of the venture and its lengthy investigation (Samuels, 2004) was claimed to have “blown open the excessive spending and disastrous recruitment figures of UKeU. The results have received widespread national coverage, including Private Eye, The Guardian and The Times”.
 
HEFCE undertook its own soul-searching (HEFCE, 2005) and concluded that: “The e-learning market has taken off in quite a different way than expected by us and most commentators in 2000 when the e-University project was initiated.  The stress is now very much on e-learning blended with other modes of teaching, on ‘niched’ products that are customised to specific customer needs, and more about domestic than international markets.  We have reflected on these changes of direction in our development of our e-learning strategy published in March 2005 (HEFCE 2005/12).  There now seems to be clarity that in these market circumstances the best approach is to support individual HEIs, rather than to establish ‘intermediaries’, because only individual HEIs can blend approaches, target specific subject niches and address domestic needs sensitively.  Hence our strategic approach to embedding e-learning in HE has been to invest in support for the e-learning missions and partnerships chosen by individual HEIs.  So lessons learnt from the e-University project about the present state of the market have been fully taken on board.” 
 
There was a Parliamentary investigation and report (Select Committee on Education and Skills, 2005) and, in an accompanying press release, the Commons education committee chairman Barry Sheerman said that: “UKeU was a terrible waste of public money. The senior executives failed to interest any private investors and showed an extraordinary over confidence in their ability to attract students to the scheme. Any private company which rewards underperformance of this scale would normally face severe criticism from its shareholders”.
 
There were three main areas of disapproval, including that UKeU pursued a narrow concept of e-learning, that there was a distinct lack of marketing and market research and that there was too much emphasis placed on the development of the technology platform. The first (including that what was needed was a blended approach with some face-to-face tuition) now seems ironic given that the success featured in this article offers an entirely on-line experience.
 
This issue was also explored in a measured way (“since much of the public comment was superficial or ill-informed”) by Paul Bacsich in a conference paper in his search for lessons to be learned from the failure (Bacsich, 2005). He noted that: “In a sense, whatever consultants had recommended, the market should have decided. Fielden et al. (2004), written in 2000, noted that the e-University should: ‘Vary the scale of virtuality in its products; some offerings may be suitable for 100 per cent virtual delivery, while others may need face-to-face support, text-books, or direct teaching of different kinds.’ But Fielden’s team was not involved in the later discussions about setting up UKeU. By the time UKeU realised that blended learning was required by the market, it was too late.”
 
This brings us to the University of York and one of the UKeU’s first and only courses. The online Masters in Public Policy and Management (PPM) is a programme of professional development for managers working in or with public services, specifically those concerned with the development of public policy and its delivery. The programme focuses on the context in which public policy is developed, and the issues involved in shaping and implementing policy objectives and translating them into services.
 
To quote from the programme web site: “The programme is uniquely flexible, being taught exclusively online and with a modular approach to delivery – allowing participants to structure their learning around the demands of a career. “ Prospective students new to online learning are urged: “Don’t panic, the programme has been designed specifically to be a highly motivational and interactive experience with frequent contact between your tutors, supervisor and fellow participants. A central part of the curriculum is the use of a-synchronous discussion groups, supported and led by your tutor and aimed at collaborative and shared learning. The unique and innovative design ensure that it is far removed from the more traditional ‘lonely long distance learner’ courses of the past.”
 
The main pressure for the existing programme design is that students come from government departments and agencies in thirty-six different countries; their sponsors are understandably reluctant to release often senior staff to spend time in the UK. York is part of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) which produces some course material (as does the BBC). York staff were thinking about programme design at the time they were approached to be one of three national pilots (along with the OU and Sheffield Hallam) by the UKeU. These factors, together with the clear backing which the venture received from government and the existence of an OU partnership, was a major incentive. UKeU acted as a catalyst for the development as well as offering valuable pump-priming cash.
 
One impression formed by York staff was that UKeU marketing and education teams were not communicating. The message from the marketeers was that a “blended” approach was required and that an on-line course would not attract students. This was not the experience of York staff and, in fact, their clients (especially but not exclusively those overseas) needed a totally on-line offer.
 
The evidence is that the formula devised at York has worked well. The results of internal inspection and feedback from students and employers are entirely positive, chiefly because the course is not lonely “self-study”. Students are supported by tutors who attempt to form “human” relationships as early as possible. In fact the course teaching group, although it only meets face-to-face once a year, has a strong and collaborative group ethos and is part of the campus teaching and learning group; its aim is to engage with students and engender “virtual warmth”. Although it is more difficult on-line the four-week on-line induction of each cohort of 70 students attempts to provide an individualised experience. All students are offered the opportunity to meet on campus one day each term and for a two-day summer school although the minority who do attend are mainly UK students.
 
Being on-line does not deter students from grappling with controversy. Debates, differences and criticism are encouraged within clear guidelines about netiquette. Contributions, from what are mature and experienced students, are measured and thoughtful. The course makes use of role play and forces contributors to justify their arguments, and on-line problems are infrequent.
 
But the collapse of the UKeU in 2004 was a traumatic experience, accompanied by high-level negotiations, press coverage, and appearances on radio 4. The course team felt protected and had good support from colleagues and their own university management.
 
What do they think went wrong? How was it that the York formula survived and prospered, whilst the UKeU concept foundered? The York team’s view is that the concept was flawed, perhaps grandiose, recruitment and income targets were unrealistic, and the management style was inappropriate, including in a failure to address emerging problems at an early stage. What was more, the design of the learning platform was also rushed and owed more to marketing than the realities of teaching. The commercial partnerships meant there was pressure to make money.
 
York staff emerged from the experience with good relationships with other HE partners and having had a chance to think about their approaches to e-learning – and conclude  that good teaching (the course has attracted awards, including for e-tutoring), student support, building communities, and having a distinctive approach are the keys and that technology should facilitate not dominate. 
 
Kevin Donovan
kevin@kevindonovan.co.uk

References
Bacsich , P. (2005) Lessons to be learned from the failure of the UK e-University. Paper presented at the 7th Biennial Conference of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia [Online]. Available from www.unisa.edu.au/odlaaconference/PDFs/32%20odlaa2005%20-%20bacsich.pdf [Accessed 19/1/08]

Fielden, J., Middlehurst, R., Schofield, A., Rist, R., Bjarnason, S., Garrett, R., Maxwell, J. & Abercromby, K. (2004). A study on market issues for the proposed e-university. In The e-University Compendium Volume One, Higher Education Academy, 2004. [Online]. Available from www.heacademy.ac.uk/learningandteaching/eUniCompendium_chap03.DOC  [Accessed 19/1/08]

HEFCE (2005) The e-University project: lessons learnt by HEFCE. Available from www.hefce.ac.uk/learning/tinits/euniv/lessons.doc [Accessed 19/1/08]

Samuels, M. (2004) The failure of UKeU: Computing's high-profile investigation into the government's disastrous £62m elearning scheme. Computing, 30 Jun 2004 [Online]. Available from www.computing.co.uk/computing/specials/2071853/failure-ukeu [Accessed 19/1/08]
 
Select Committee on Education and Skills (2005) Education and Skills - Third Report [Online]. Available from www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200405/cmselect/cmeduski/205/20502.htm  [Accessed 19/1/08]



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