The on-line classroom

High hopes are riding on education delivered on the Internet but is it really going to change how people learn at work and will they accept that they have to go on doing it for the rest of their lives?

Most of us now accept that our working lives will consist of life-long learning. Skills acquired at university soon date, and the newly hip notion of the "portfolio career" – in which to qualify as a high-flier you need to change direction radically every once in a while – has added to the momentum.

But what has really galvanised this commendable lust for re-education is the arrival of the Internet. This isn’t just because of the transformational effect new technology has had on markets and work patterns, nor because we have finally clicked that the increased pace of change is unlikely to slacken. In fact, the Internet itself has become synonymous with easy access to knowledge. It’s all there for us in cyber-space whenever we want it – or so the new breed of e-educationalists would have us believe.

Power shift

"People can learn where they want, when they want, at the pace that they want, rather than in a controlled, strictly ordered traditional environment. What you’re doing is shifting power away from the teacher so the learners can control their own environment," says Jeremy White, CEO of Internet company Nettec, which is so keen to keep all staff on-line for regular study sessions that it offers them vouchers for the purpose.

Nonetheless, there is already evidence of profound disagreement among pundits as to the real effect of the Internet on learning. Some insist that the notion of a profound shift is misguided. They argue that countless forerunning technologies – from audio cassettes to video to laser disk – raised similar expectations in their day without fundamentally altering anything. "The end of chalk and talk? The end of the classroom? Well, that was nonsense then and it’s nonsense now," claims one committed traditionalist.

Still, it is impossible ignore the palpable atmosphere of enthusiasm and energy emanating from events such as the recent e-learning exhibition at the Business Design Centre in Islington, where both exhibitors and visitors spoke animatedly of a real revolution leading to boom times for the training and development industry. The demand for e-learning in the UK is growing at such an exponential rate that "everything’s up for grabs", according to one industry spokesman. There’s a real feeling of change in the air.

"E-learning is becoming massive," says Alistair Morrison, director of Vega Skills Change, a firm specialising in electronic coursework for company training programmes, which seems to cover pretty much every subject under the sun. He cites figures from the DfEE that predict the industry in Europe will be worth $2bn by 2005. "That’s humungous compared to where it is now."

He believes the shift to e-learning is already ensuring that the profile of training within corporate organisations, seen for too long as a poor relation, has now finally hit centre stage.

"You’ve got companies like Cisco saying they’re going to put 100 per cent of their field engineering training on-line, and people like Ford talking about giving every member of staff a PC at home," says Morrison. "Most of the companies we deal with are moving into e-learning. They’re not throwing everything away, but they’re including it as part of their learning and development strategies."

Typical of these is the investment bank Credit Suisse First Boston (CSFB) – 4,000 of its 15,000 employees worldwide have signed up for training delivered over the company’s internal Internet web site. Typical of these is David Haines, who works in bullion operations at the bank’s London HQ. He has set his sights on graduating to the dealing desk – but gaining the necessary securities diploma means a lot of hard work, and he is putting in most of it electronically.

As far as Haines is concerned, the real boon of Web-based learning is interaction. "If you haven’t understood something, it points you in the right direction." You could say the same of a good teacher, but using the Web you can go over the same points as often as you like until you’ve got it straight. "And at the end it gives you a sort of quick test to see how you’ve actually understood. It’s challenging you all the time."

According to CSFB’s electronic learning initiative manager, Diane Oswell, the medium is perfectly matched to the bank’s global organisation, allowing staff in remote offices to access to training they would otherwise have to travel for, and it’s also a supplement to classroom training. But she believes it’s the sheer availability of on-line learning that makes it most attractive: staff can fit in an hour or two of study between meetings, and there’s evidence that many are using it creatively to advance their careers. As one staffer remarks: "It’s very much up to the individual to take responsibility for their learning. Credit Suisse provides the tools, the techniques and the environment. I like to spend an hour a day – that’s sort of my lunch hour."

Cheap training

Another important consideration from the employers’ point of view of is the cheapness of the medium. Jeremy White at Nettec estimates his electronic training bill is about five per cent of what it would be were staff trained traditionally – an important consideration, given the country’s chronic shortfall in specialist skills. "It’s an enormous problem for us because the business is growing very rapidly – we’re constantly taking on people with cutting-edge skills, but we can’t get enough of them and the skills have to develop."

And as someone who admits he went through early life with no particular interest in education, he also claims the Internet is a great leveller – there’s scope for anyone to progress provided they have the right attitude. "If they’re excited about new technologies, we would expect to develop their skills as they work in our business. And I know this is happening throughout the technology industry."

The flexibility of "Webucation" is also an important incentive for those in adult education outside the corporate framework. Martin Rowley is studying for a degree in business information management at the University of Wolverhampton, but he also has a day job to pay the mortgage. If the course weren’t designed so flexibly, he claims, he would have had to give up his job and take out a loan to finance his degree.

But striking the right balance between electronic and traditional learning techniques is difficult, and the academic authorities at Wolverhampton have had to work hard to adapt degree courses to incorporate the new technology. "Simply dumping textual material on to a computer is not necessarily a good learning process for the student," says Ian McKeown, a lecturer in strategic management and entrepreneurship. "I think the absorption rate would be low, because the human interaction element is a very important part of learning.

"What we decided to do was to keep contact with the students by having a mix. Students have come in on three occasions to actually meet staff, and then for the remainder they’re studying on-line material. They also have chat groups where they can chat with the tutor and other students, and we have discussion groups where we set up a topic and then the students add to that over maybe one or two weeks."

Much thought has also gone into how the coursework is presented on-screen. "There’s a whole series of issues about creating digestible chunks of information, not just in textual format but in a way that includes diagrams or can take hypertext links into other sites, which might include journal articles," McKeown says. "Creating a rich environment is the trick."

And here again the business case of e-learning proved a powerful incentive for the university. According to Steve Molyneux, Microsoft professor of advanced learning technologies: "If you look at large university campuses there are huge overheads in terms of estates. We’re not providing a good quality service or students if we continually bus them around. So [the investment in e-learning] was basically a business model: it would save us money and also increase the learning experience of our students."

Effects on universities

Wolverhampton’s seven-year plan to put all its courses on the Internet will clearly have major ramifications on the university’s future shape. Although Molyneux insists it is not intended to replace traditional higher education, it will mean fewer human lecturers, and will also open up the university’s courses to a wider spectrum of students from across the world. Consequently, he argues, the provision is an imperative for British universities in an increasingly competitive academic world. "If we have the likes of Harvard, Princeton, MIT and non-Ivy League US universities offering on-line degrees that people in the UK could offer, can we in the UK afford not to compete?"

Electronic learning is also beginning to make its effect felt further down the academic scale in adult education, and has become an important constituent of the present Government’s much-vaunted emphasis on lifelong learning. This autumn sees the advent of Learn Direct, an initiative to help people who’ve fallen through the education and learning net. First suggested six years ago by the then Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown (and called then, more romantically, the University for Industry), the scheme aims to provide an "any time, any place, any pace, anywhere style of learning".

"The people we’ve got to get at are those who’ve been outside for so very long," says Professor Bob Fryer of Southampton University, who is also a Learn Direct director. "If Britain really wants to be world class, we can’t have a fifth of our adult population with serious difficulties with literacy and numeracy. There are many, many people for whom these problems stand as barriers between them and the good life, and we can’t accept that in a civilised community."

But as at Wolverhampton it’s a question of getting the right mix between electronic and face-to-face communication. Learn Direct is attempting to tackle this by striking partnerships between its network of learning centres and colleges, training providers and field experts. "People in those circumstances are vulnerable. They’ve often lived a life of humiliations – or at least of seeking to avoid them – so they need the most supportive learning environment," says Fryer. "The aim is to be transformational – expanding demand is the biggest challenge we face in this country. What we’ve got to do is make it relevant. People won’t learn if it’s not useful and not focused on their needs, and if it’s not timely."

The institution has certainly set itself an ambitious target: it aims to sign up another million people to part-time education by 2003. But Fryer contends that its very flexibility will help break down many of the barriers which used to prevent people from re-educating themselves by creating new rhythms of learning that can accommodate busy lives.

To this extent, therefore, the benefits of e-learning seem unarguable. But cautious voices have been raised about the viability of pinning so many hopes on the new medium. They claim there is a big risk in over-hyping e-learning at the expense of tried and tested methods. As a simple example, they suggest, you need only look at foreign language audio cassettes: although some people have managed to learn languages using them, most don’t. The big risk is that, far from turning people on to education, an impersonal electronic environment, devoid of human encouragement and comradeship, will demotivate them.

"There are people around who will oversell what is possible," says Peter Goodyear, professor of educational research at Lancaster University. He claims this could lead to two damaging developments. "One is something of a trivialisation of learning, and what learning necessarily entails. But there is also a tendency to marginalise the people who were working on these problems in the past – people who are not au fait with current technology but who have a great deal of wisdom about learning and its place.

"There’s a kind of froth of excited individuals and firms at the moment. What worries me is that the people who would understand how to drive the technology in the right direction become marginalised by people who simply understand the technology. It’s to do with who stays and who goes whether the wisdom will be retained to take real advantage of these new technologies."

E-revolution, or no – it’s still the case that the overwhelming need in education at present is for people who have learned how to learn.

  • This is an edited extract from Radio 4’s In Business programme. The series is broadcast on Thursdays at 8.30pm and repeated on Sundays at 9.30pm

By Jane Lewis

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