Finally some overall reflections on the ALT-C conference. It has been a couple of years since I last attended and I noted a couple of emerging themes. Firstly more and more institutions are making their learning material available via open channels such as YouTube and iTunesU and this material is very much seen as beneficial in marketing the institution. Secondly there is growing use of distance learning techniques in commercial activity which is involving companies more in the growth and development of their employees (with learning taking place in the workplace, company employees act as mentors for that learning) and reaping benefits in reduced travel costs and less time out of the workplace.
Some challenges remain though. I think that the continued linking by the Government of distance/online learning to cost effectiveness is a concern. Commercial providers may pick this up and strive to mass produce learning materials and market them to the sector which may put pressure on the sector to follow suit. The overriding concern must be that students get a quality education and quality experience from their learning and any attempts to reduce quality should be resisted. HEFCE have recognised that developing quality material costs; I am not sure that the Government has.
It was interesting to note from the UCISA survey on Technology Enhanced Learning that e-learning strategies are now embedded in institutional teaching and learning strategies. Heather Fry highlighted that HEFCE in their national e-learning strategy suggested that institutions should seize the learning technology agenda and align it with their institutional missions. Both the research findings and HEFCE’s prompting suggest that e-learning is moving into the mainstream as an established part of an institution’s learning provision. But how true is that? One suggestion for the decline in stand along e-learning strategies was that the funding councils no longer had any funding directly identified with e-learning and so the need to have a separate strategy had passed. Although this might be regarded as overly cynical, I am aware of institutions where strategies have been written ‘because HEFCE said we needed one’. Others commented that institutional strategies and missions are far removed from what happens on the ground or that there was little specific mention of e-learning and the use of technology in their institutions teaching and learning strategy. So it would appear that learning technologists still struggle to get their voice heard and influence the way teaching is delivered.
Heather Fry, when discussing open educational resources, noted that we need a cultural change to ensure OERs are adopted. This is a significant challenge and I had the feeling of having been here before. I worked on the National Development Programme for Computer Assisted Learning more years ago than I care to remember and although there was a great deal of quality material developed, very little of it was adopted outside of the institution where it was developed. Since then there have been a succession of initiatives where funding has been provided to develop learning material which has had a very low level of adoption outside the institutions where it was developed. It remains to be seen whether the economic pressures will lead to wider adoption of OERs or even outsourcing of individual modules (why does every institution develop and teach an Introduction to Statistics course?). Or will the ‘not invented here’ syndrome prevail?
Overall though and to end on a high note, there were some excellent and thought provoking presentations. I saw a great deal of innovative thinking and novel ideas for delivery of learning material. The UK will need to harness this innovation if it is to continue to be regarded as a leading provider of higher education in the global market.