Universities struggle to find their place in the e-learning industry.
E-learning is full of dichotomies , asynchronous vs. synchronous delivery, just-in-time vs. just-for-fun courses, event-driven vs. infrastructure-driven roll-outs, profit-seeking vs. save-the-world innovators, off-the-shelf vs. custom content, and the list could go on. But the biggest differences are those between the two types of organizations that offer online education , academic institutions and corporations.
There are plenty of reasons to think these worlds are actually coming together. For example, businesses are providing online classes to their employees, and universities are selling online courses to corporations. Academic institutions are creating for-profit education arms (Harvard Business School Interactive), and corporations are creating academically accredited subsidiaries (the University of Phoenix Online). Vendors are selling their e-learning tools to universities and corporations, and universities are selling tools they've developed to outside organizations (NYUOnline's iAuthor authoring software).
Despite these parallels, business and higher education are still worlds apart. The situation reminds me of the conversations I inevitably get into with strangers on airplanes. They know people who live in my town or who graduated from my school the year I did. Then they rattle off a list of names. I, of course, know none of them, and an awkward silence descends.
The conversations between universities and corporations trying to share e-learning best practices sound even more disjointed. When one camp asks the other's opinion of the dozen or so vendors they are considering, they receive a silent response. When they start talking metrics , budgets, processes , they find they have even less in common.
Predictably enough, this tension reflects the differences between the two entities. Corporate training is typically better-funded, has a clearer mission, takes place in nicer classrooms and is less mired in politics than higher education. Academic institutions, on the other hand, must fight for or creatively raise money and focus more on knowledge than tangible skills.
But as the e-learning industry moves forward, we find ourselves pondering the future of higher education. As technology makes it possible to deliver formal learning to far-flung audiences, what role will universities play, if any?
Lost profits or brass ring?
The nation's top schools have a lot to lose as a result of the e-learning revolution. Administrators and instructors worry that online courses will dilute their school's brand, status and influence. On the other hand, if they don't pursue e-learning, they know they could still lose that influence , and revenue. Other schools , ones that aren't as "prestigious" as Harvard or Stanford but are well-known in certain fields of study, see it as an opportunity. The professors and deans at these schools aren't jetting all over the country doing lucrative speaking and consulting gigs, so they have time to nurture new types of courses themselves instead of passing the assignment on to hapless teaching assistants. Meanwhile, the lowest-ranking institutions plan to be large consumers of e-learning, as they can cut costs by not having to develop courses from scratch.
Despite the differences in their attitudes and concerns, most schools face the same problems. Their professors want to use e-learning to build mindshare and increase their fame and fortune, whether it's within the confines of a university or outside its walls. Meanwhile, most professors don't know which is worse , for e-learning to misrepresent their content, or for it to capture it perfectly. Regardless, they know that both the threat of disintermediation and the opportunity of scale will change their profession forever.
Deans, who care about increasing the size of the audience, want to use e-learning to build bigger classrooms. (Ironically, virtual classroom technology as we know it works well with classes of a hundred people or fewer. Any larger and students feel disconnected.) They treat e-learning as infrastructure, similar to a new gym. I am waiting to see the first university Web site named after a rich donor , the R.W. Mayle Memorial Web Site of Perpetual Teaching.
As a result of this mindset, those who are responsible for large-scale e-learning programs are pursuing a "gather-scatter" model. They are busily capturing video, slides and audio in massive data repositories with the eventual goal of creating custom courses. It's unnerving that both professors and deans assume that content has an infinite shelf-life and that technology interferes with or only passively transports the content.
There are some nimble visionaries in higher education who have been and will continue to be instrumental in our industry's evolution. But universities as institutions are like the Swiss watch factories of 50 years ago. Their products are beautiful, exclusive and expensive. E-learning today is the equivalent of the first quartz movement patents. While universities are at least aware of the threat it poses, learning to change will be the hardest part.
-Clark Aldrich (email@example.com) is analyst emeritus for the Gartner Group.
COPYRIGHT Bill Communications Inc. 2001. All rights reserved.