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Education - the next big thing Back  
In the early days of NCB Stockbrokers, the typical way to train junior dealers was to, ‘let them loose on the market and hope that this learning process didn’t result in too many costly mistakes’, Dermot Desmond told attendees at a lecture given at the National College of Ireland. Unable to afford the losses this incurred Desmond looked to technology for an answer, and he says that today learning via technology has become more important than ever.
&‘For more than twenty years, I have held a strong interest in the process of learning and especially ways in which technology can enhance learning. In the early eighties, when I founded the stockbrokers, NCB, the typical way to train junior dealers was to let them loose on the market and hope that this learning process didn’t result in too many costly mistakes. I couldn’t afford the losses and was fascinated by technology. So we looked at ways to set up a simulated dealing environment that used real but historical data feeds. This was my first taste of the potential of technology-based learning,’ Dermot Desmond, who played an instrumental role in the foundation of the International Financial Services Centre (1987) in Dublin in 1987, told delegates at the lecture.

In 1985, Desmond created Intuition Ltd., which is a leading supplier of corporate e-learning content, software and services to a numbers of sectors, including finance, life sciences and the public sector. Since then, apart from his participation in various other ventures such as IIU Strategies and Celtic Football Club, Desmond has been actively involved in a wide range of leading-edge technology companies.

Desmond went on to tell the audience, ‘In the 1940s, it was predicted that the motion picture would transform education. In the 1950s, it was said that television offered ‘the greatest opportunity for the advancement of education since the introduction of the printing press’. However, nothing really changed!

When I was school in the 1960s, the teaching model was much the same as that of a century earlier. Students were seen as a collection of empty vessels waiting to fill from the fountain of knowledge.

In 1999, at the pinnacle of the dot com boom, John Chambers’ (CEO Cisco Systems) announced:

‘The next big killer application for the Internet is going to be education. Education over the Internet is going to be so big, it’s going to make e-mail look like a rounding error.’

The clich?d mantra was ‘learning anywhere, anytime’. Between 1998 and 2000, against the background of this hype and a gold rush mentality, US Venture Capitalists ploughed huge amounts of money into e-learning start-ups. Unfortunately, these investors kissed a lot of e-learning frogs without seeing too many magical transformations!

The biggest US e-learning failures in the higher education market included New York University’s NYUOnline.com, Columbia University’s Fathom.com, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Caliber.com.

On this side of the Atlantic, the experience was similar. In 2000, with great fanfare, the UK government launched an e-university with €100m in funding. However, the first online courses did not go live until 2003 due to technical problems. Today, after burning through much of the original investment, it has only 900 students enrolled and now faces restructuring or closure. Britain’s Open University also lost around €14m trying to break into the US market.

So, what were the reasons for these failures? It was a case of toomuch money far too soon for a set of flawed business plans. The online offerings just did not address the real needs of students. In many cases, the administrative software technology was weak and the content was poor. Of equal if not greater significance, online students felt isolated from other students and faculty. It was a chaotic technology environment. Proprietary formats made it almost impossible to assemble e-learning content from multiple sources. Online learning moved education from being classroom-centric to technology-centric. No effort was made to make it learner-centric. These early efforts often were very costly, produced low quality results and only succeeded in disenchanting students.

From the rubble, a few stars emerged that succeeded in using a mix of online and traditional education to maximise flexibility, quality and value for students. In the US, I would mention the University of Phoenix, DeVry University with their ‘Reach for the sky, DeVry’ slogan, and Sylvan Learning Systems. In the UK, Liverpool University recently announced a deal funded by Sylvan Learning Systems that will shortly make them the largest online university in Europe. There were also a few notable successes in the corporate e-learning market. Companies such as Cisco, IBM and Glaxo as well many large banks and pharmaceutical companies have saved huge amounts of money using online tuition.

However, good quality e-learning content is still complex, time-consuming and expensive to produce. In addition, there are technical barriers and technology adoption barriers in computing and communications.

Harvard’s Clayton Christensen in researching the rise and fall of technology companies found that many of the successful firms failed while apparently doing all the right things - they invested in improving their product or service in ways that were important to their biggest customers in major markets. Nevertheless, these companies were displaced, in his own words, by disruptive technologies that were ignored because they initially had worse performance characteristics and were thought to be only suitable for the low end of the market. Strategic innovations then allowed the disruptive technology to compete for the mainstream customers and the incumbent was by that time unable or too late to respond.

Christensen notes that even the smartest companies can have difficulty embracing disruptive innovations. Companies develop mind-sets and processes that revolve around doing things that they already know. Once that pattern is established it becomes difficult for managers to justify to themselves or to others the need to turn everything upside down in order to respond to a barely emergent trend. By the time the threat is obvious, it’s too late.

For these reasons, Harvard University created an entirely separate company to pursue its e-learning vision. Harvard Business School Publishing is a wholly owned, not-for-profit subsidiary of Harvard University that offers self-paced web-based learning in bite-size elements.

The University of Phoenix is another interesting case study on digital learning. It is a traditional private university that has placed intense emphasis on its online strategy. Phoenix’s mission is not unlike that of the NCI; it is “dedicated to providing educational opportunities to working adult students whose access might otherwise be restricted or non-existent” and it operates through a network of more than 140 off-campus centres. It has enjoyed incredible success over the last several years - enrolment numbers have increased more than fivefold since 1995.

In 2000, it had 65,000 students (12,000 in online programs) and $640m in revenue. In 2003 it had 186,000 students (50,000 in online programs in 91 countries), $1.3bn in revenues, and made profits of almost $250m. What is the secret of its success??

Firstly, its prospectus adjusts to meet the changing and sometimes diverse needs of its mature students. It has modularised and standardised learning into smaller building blocks and provides this offering to its students (which it views as customers) in a flexible and convenient value proposition.

Secondly, there is a strong emphasis on small classes and group projects. Thirdly, it leverages technology wherever possible. It offers its students the opportunity to buy online instructional materials rather than use traditional textbooks. Students are given a password for life to the universities virtual library.

While University of Phoenix has partly commoditised education to support public demand for wider and more flexible academic options, some would argue that it has betrayed traditional university education values for short-term commercial gain. Its critics have dubbed it disparagingly as the ‘Drive-Thru-U’ and ‘McUniversity’.

Looking back over the experience of the last decade or so, perhaps the clearest message is that the winning model for future learning will be based on a bricks and clicks model (sometimes referred to as blended learning) that involves a combination of online learning resources and classroom-based interaction. No real replacement has yet been found for the richness of context and face-to-face interaction that a physical campus provides.

However, technology will allow educators to return to a more Socratic teaching style, which is based on fostering critical thinking and eliciting knowledge through questioning. Ultimately, the best universities may have best “learning facilitators” rather than the best teachers in the traditional sense. The Harvard case study teaching method is based on this approach.

There will be more time for thinking and reflecting which can only enhance the learning experience. Education should become a lot more interesting and engaging for educators and students alike.

To sum up, I would say that:
• E-learning is a kind of rocket fuel for education. While engine glitches may have delayed the launch, a successful take-off is not in doubt.
• The arrival of mobile broadband will be an inflection point for e-learning. We can expect spectacular growth similar to the rapid take-up of mobile phones.
• The higher education sector must fully engage in the e-learning transformation in order to sustain and develop its future role in society. To genuinely support continuous learning, colleges and universities must shift e-learning to centre-stage.
• Finally, we need a new flexible accreditation and learning credit system that recognises learning in all its forms, including corporate training and experiential learning. We should be able to get cumulative recognition for a lifetime of learning.

I believe passionately in the role of education but not as something confined to the youth. Learning should be an exciting odyssey, especially if we embrace the emerging technologies. Therefore, it behoves primary, secondary and third level institutions to start that journey.

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