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Potential implications of the online learning innovation fund
by Paul Bacsich


The Online Learning Innovation Fund (OLIF) was announced in June 2009 by the recently-constructed Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS 2009), formed from the merger of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) and Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) in the UK government. Its aim is to "facilitate UK universities to deliver online distance learning to the furthest corners of the world".

This article considers a number of issues relevant to the ALT membership raised by the proposal and suggests some ways forward. It is very much tentative as it is expected that in the next few months progress will be rapid (but not necessarily in the direction the ALT community wishes) unless people get to grips with the concept and its implications.

At a strategic level - e.g. from an EU or UNESCO perspective - one can see the initiative as being the latest in a series of initiatives in the e-learning area from the UK national agencies active in this space, namely JISC and the Higher Education Academy. Earlier examples from the Academy were the Benchmarking Exercise and the Pathfinder Programme; from JISC the Curriculum Design and Delivery pair of programmes and most recently the ongoing jointly-run Open Educational Resources (OER) Programme with its various strands. It should not be forgotten that there are also initiatives in Scotland (Transformation Programme) and Wales (Gwella). Given the economic climate, some feel that OLIF could be the last such large-scale initiative for a good few years.
 
The genesis of this particular programme seems clearly to have been the position paper to DIUS written by Sir Ron Cooke, Chair (at the time) of JISC, entitled Online Innovation in Higher Education (Cooke 2008). There was some involvement from the sector in the drafting process but it was very much a vision led by an individual - as seems to be the brief given to these individuals by DIUS. In particular paragraph 1.4 said the new initiative should be:

"[A] new approach to virtual education based on a corpus of open learning content: the UK must have a core of open access learning resources organised in a coherent way to support on-line and blended learning by all higher education institutions and to make it more widely available in non-HE environments. This needs to be supported by national centres of excellence to provide quality control, essential updating, skills training, and research and development in educational technology, e-pedagogy and educational psychology. All HEIs should be encouraged and helped to exploit virtual education technologies as appropriate to their student's requirements and their strategies".

Those of a historical turn of mind pointed out that there were some aspects of this that were reminiscent of the ill-fated UK e-University, although there was no agreement as to what these aspects were, even among those who had worked in it.. One issue was that what the UK e-University became (either shrunk to or never grown away from) was very far from (or far short of) what was planned (in a comprehensive series of reports).

However, one thing was clearly similar. At the time of the creation of the UK e-University there was much debate inside and outside the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) as to what the "true role" of the Open University(OU) should be in this new enterprise. Little trace of this debate is visible now, but the gist was (a) whether the OU was modern enough to cope with being a key part of an e-University, but (b) on the other hand, whether the OU would dominate the provision. In the end, the role of the OU was probably rather less than even the earlier minimal views - one course offering in a specialised area and little involvement with the development of the learning environment except at the early specification stage. History does not record any such view but many informally assumed that the OU was rather relieved at having so little exposure to the eventual debacle.
 
Whatever the past, over the last few years the OU with support from HEFCE (or vice versa?) has been increasing its "National Role" (OU 2009a) to a point where it is playing a significant coordinating role in a number of key initiatives. However, the tension remains, since just ahead of ALT-C 2009 and the keynote speech by Martin Bean the OU VC-designate, the OU (2009b) announced its own revised strategy in a statement discreetly slipped out but of course picked up by the edubloggers including ALT's own Seb Schmoller (2009). This seems to some to not look as participatory and collaborative as earlier National Role rhetoric might have suggested. Clow (2009) has an excellent summary of Martin Bean's Elluminate presentation.

Yet unlike in the earlier UK e-University initiative, the OU seems to be promised a key role in the OLIF: in fact the incoming Vice-Chancellor will sit on the Planning Committee. But many would argue that the OU no longer has a monopoly of wisdom on distance learning methodology, especially at postgraduate level where the more marketable courses are likely to be found. Although the OU has "exported" many e-learning experts to other UK institutions and projects, there are also several UK distance learning experts who have never worked at the OU. Can we learn lessons from other initiatives as to how to blend OU experience with that of others? Some earlier OU collaborations were not so successful but recent JISC projects indicate that a more collaborative approach is possible between the OU and "traditional" institutions.

So there are clearly some aspects of the OLIF which suggest that "we have been there before". But there is more - and in the rest of the article I raise five issues, briefly.

1. The funding for OLIF comes from HEFCE only. So what of the other home nations? How can "brand UK" work with three countries missing? Is there some way of ensuring that the other home nations can join in? Is anyone trying to achieve this by knocking heads together in funding councils? Could the private sector help to glue the home nations together? What lessons on "spill-over" can we learn from the JISC and Academy programmes, which routinely have to deal with home nation issues and funding differences? If we cannot achieve coherence there is not just a danger to "brand UK" but a bigger danger that a home nation might decide to "go it alone" - and faster - as Scotland did earlier with Scottish Knowledge and the Interactive University. If Ireland can mount significant distance learning initiatives such as from Hibernia College, so could Scotland with a competence spread widely across the institutions (Heriot Watt, Edinburgh, West of Scotland, Robert Gordons) - not to mention the competence in Wales with Glamorgan University and in Northern Ireland with Ulster University, to name but two. (Apologies to any missed out - including the ten or so key players in England.)

2. In a bizarre coincidence, the OLIF announcement came on the very day of the funeral of Professor Robin Mason, where many eminent e-learning professors came to pay their respects. Robin (from Institute of Educational Technology (IET) in the OU, and recently Chair of the ALT Research Committee) was one of the key experts behind the UK e-University, but like a number of the other experts involved, her advice was rarely followed. Will this new initiative suffer a similar fate? How can the ALT community best guard against this and ensure that researcher and practitioner views are heard at the highest levels?

3. For some years in Further Education (FE), and more recently in Higher Education (HE), we have begun to realise that leadership skills in e-learning are key to success. It is a while since the merry quip "selling e-learning is just like selling chocolates" was heard in a board room - that time it ended in tears. But what exactly do leaders need to know and to do? The Leadership Foundation and the Change Academy may need to reconfigure their programmes to deal more with major step-change and less with incremental change. How can the relatively few experts in step-change in this field be brought into play in a coherent fashion?

4. There is evidence - and not only from the US - that success in e-learning comes from a judicious mix of FE and HE-level offerings. Arguably, the non-English home nations have made more progress in integration of these levels even if much is still to be done. There are interesting providers of FE distance learning as well as HE distance learning. What lessons can be drawn from these? Why are recent initiatives, including the OER initiatives, not applying to colleges, as they are soon to do in the US? (Re.ViCa 2009b) An opportunity was missed the first time round to ensure that insights and systems from University for Industry (Ufi) LearnDirect were brought to bear. Given the modern nature of the Ufi's e-learning systems, it would be even less sensible to miss the opportunity this time.

5. The UK e-University was much criticised up to and including government circles for not having done enough market research - although my more refined view (Bacsich 2005) would be: not enough at the right time, not detailed enough especially in respect of competitors, and certainly not acted on soon enough. Yet there seems very little evidence of any market research in the last few years that has informed the current exercise - if there is, it must be secret. There is not even any very good information on how much distance learning the UK offers at present, so we have very little idea of capacity on the supply side - only rather minimal desk research such as the report at Re.ViCa (2009) which lists 61 HEIs and a surprising number (36) of colleges offering distance learning. Fortunately the gap is recently to some extent being plugged, though still at a general level. JISC (2009) has produced a good overview of the situation for e-learning and e-infrastructure in nine countries and the UK, though focussed on the viewpoint of the agencies rather than analysing the institutions, and not necessarily covering the most obvious country prospects for "UK plc". The Re.ViCa project (revica.europace.org), in which I am heavily involved, has produced a massive list of substantial e-learning providers together with over 100 country reports of which 30 are aimed to be reasonably comprehensive, but since it is an EU-funded project it was not designed a priori as a market research document for UK plc - though good use can be made of it. There are a number of papers distilling this material (see in particular Bacsich et al 2009) but the headline conclusions are that there is far far more local competition to distance learning from the UK than there was when the UK e-University was set up and that some countries like the US are very far ahead (in deployment terms) of anyone else (Mayadas et al 2009) at both HEI and college level. Very recent evidence is that the competitor situation is worse than we thought, in that as we begin to peer through the language barrier (e.g. Spanish in Latin America - but it is likely to be true of Arabic - and is known to be true in China) a whole new tranche of providers is revealed who had not previously done the "Anglo" world the courtesy of announcing their presence via ALT-C and similar conferences, or by journal papers in English, or in reports from international agencies. But what is not evident is the kind of detailed market research report that the UK e-University commissioned (even if not acted upon) - as will be clearer when the next tranche of UK e-University reports are released later this year by the Higher Education Academy.

It is a matter for another paper as to whether the "import" and "colonialist" business models implicit in some of the planning need to be updated for the web 2.0 age. Not for the first time, views of practitioners are crucial, especially those with experience overseas.

Paul Bacsich
Matic Media Ltd and Sero Consulting Ltd

pbacsich@runbox.com

References and further reading
Bacsich, P. (2005), "Lessons to be learned from the failure of the UK e-University", Proceedings of ODLAA 2005, Australia, www.odlaa.org/events/2005conf/ref/ODLAA2005bacsich.pdf

Bacsich, P. et al (2009), "The Re.ViCa project: a review of virtual campuses", in: Collected papers of the Cambridge International Conference on Open and Distance Learning 2009: Supporting learning in the digital age: rethinking inclusion, pedagogy and quality, September 2009 (pp 60-66), www2.open.ac.uk/r06/documents/CambridgeConferenceMainPaper2009.pdf

BIS (2009), Universities set to go online for millions, press release of 23 June 2009, nds.coi.gov.uk/clientmicrosite/Content/Detail.aspx?ClientId=431&NewsAreaId=2&ReleaseID=403851&SubjectId=36

Clow, Doug (2009), Martin Bean: A Journey In Innovation, Liveblog notes from watching (the Elluminate-mediated broadcast of) Martin Bean (OU VC Designate) keynote address at ALT-C 2009, dougclow.wordpress.com/2009/09/09/martin-bean-a-journey-in-innovation/

Cooke (2008), Online Innovation in Higher Education, www.dius.gov.uk/higher_education/shape_and_structure/he_debate/~/media/publications/O/online_innovation_in_he_131008

JISC (2009), A national approach to technology in education shows benefits, www.jisc.ac.uk/news/stories/2009/09/internationalstudy.aspx

Mayadas, Frank et al, "Online Education Today", in:Science, 2 January 2009: Vol. 323. no. 5910, pp. 85 - 89, www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/323/5910/85

OU (2009a), £7.8 million grant for shared solutions to common problems in the higher education sector, www3.open.ac.uk/events/2/2009625_31502_o1.doc

OU (2009b), The Open University's Strategic Priorities 2009/10, www.open.ac.uk/ou-futures/direction.shtm

Re.ViCa (2009a), (Post-secondary) distance learning in the UK, www.virtualcampuses.eu/index.php/United_Kingdom_-_distance_learning

Re.ViCa (2009b), US Community Colleges Online, www.virtualcampuses.eu/index.php/Community_Colleges_Online

Schmoller, S (2009), A new strategic direction for the OU - OUeU?, fm.schmoller.net/2009/08/a-new-strategic-direction-for-the-ou.html
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