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John Simkin

Government's E-Learning Strategy

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In July 2003 Charles Clarke published the government's e-learning strategy. He asked for teachers to respond to this policy. The deadline is the 30th January, 2004. Apparently, very few have bothered to do this. Maybe members would be interested in commenting on this issue. I will then make sure these views are passed on to the government.

http://www.dfes.gov.uk/elearningstrategy/about.stm

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The lack of responses to the government’s consultation document on e-learning could simply be due to the fact that teachers are not particularly excited about e-learning. In addition, a large number of teachers are not sure what it is all about. The “e” appears to have been identified as more concerned with distance learning or Web-based learning rather than “electronic” in its wider sense, i.e. embracing CD-ROMs, DVDs, electronic whiteboards, etc.

My personal view is that e-learning has been over-hyped. Perhaps a sense of ennui has set in. Computers are just another tool, and I am no more enthralled with computers than I am with audiocassette recorders and VCRs. I got very excited about using email when it first became available to me back in 1986. Now I just regard email as useful but also as an irritation, with 100-plus spam messages arriving in my mailboxes every day so that I have to shield myself with an aggressive filtering system. Recent anti-spam legislation has not improved matters one iota, but let’s see what happens as a result of the US CAN-SPAM Act being introduced on 1 January 2004.

I got very excited about the Web when it was launched in 1993, but in many ways it is a disappointment. I thought the Web would have developed a lot further by now. It is still quite primitive as a learning tool. A good deal of what is being done on the Web could be executed much more efficiently on CD-ROMs. I am now on broadband, but I still get irritated by videos that hiccup intermittently and sites that slow down to a snail’s pace at peak times – or simply disappear. I use the Web mainly as an information system – it’s the best library I have ever used. But the Internet is also a threat. I was hacked three times in 2001, twice from Germany and once from Russia. No damage was done, as my ISP spotted the intrusions before I did and blocked my account on each occasion. My computer is now like Fort Knox, protected by ZoneAlarm Pro, MailWasher Pro, SpyBot, Spy Sweeper, Window Washer and Norton Anti-Virus. E-learning has potential, but you need a lot of knowledge to make the best use of it.

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My personal view is that e-learning has been over-hyped. Perhaps a sense of ennui has set in. Computers are just another tool, and I am no more enthralled with computers than I am with audiocassette recorders and VCRs. I got very excited about using email when it first became available to me back in 1986. Now I just regard email as useful but also as an irritation, with 100-plus spam messages arriving in my mailboxes every day so that I have to shield myself with an aggressive filtering system. Recent anti-spam legislation has not improved matters one iota, but let’s see what happens as a result of the US CAN-SPAM Act being introduced on 1 January 2004.

I got very excited about the Web when it was launched in 1993, but in many ways it is a disappointment. I thought the Web would have developed a lot further by now. It is still quite primitive as a learning tool. A good deal of what is being done on the Web could be executed much more efficiently on CD-ROMs.

I agree with a lot of what you say. I began making predictions about the revolutionary nature of the internet for online learning in 1997. Since then I have worked as an educational adviser for two very large corporations trying to get into the educational market. I still have copies of the documents where I outlined the changes that would take place in education. In most cases I was wrong. However, not because of what I said did not happen (although some of my predictions have not happened yet). My major mistake was to overestimate the speed it would happen.

There are two major reasons why the speed of change has been much slower than I predicted.

(1) I overestimated the willingness of the government to spend money on the training of teachers and the provision of the equipment to make online education a reality. This was a silly mistake on my part. I was also involved in the first computer revolution in schools that began in the early 1980s. I observed at first hand how the government was slow to put money into the right areas and as a result many of those computers ended up being locked away in cupboards. Online learning in the classroom will only take off when teachers have access to enough computers with broadband connections to the internet. Over the last couple of years I have made several visits to the International School of Toulouse. They have these facilities and they have experienced this revolution. Unfortunately, the vast majority of schools in the world has not reached this stage yet.

(2) The other reason is because of our current economic system. We live in a capitalist society where companies are willing to make large scale investments in order to make long-term profits. For example, the impact of inventions such as the motor car was based on the belief that investment and innovation would lead to healthy profits. This is not the case with the production of online educational resources. Since the late 1990s conventional publishers have made an attempt to make profits out of online educational content. Large sums of money have been invested and so far they have received very little in return. At first it was believed that the ITV model would work (content paid for by the advertisers). Income from advertisers has been very poor and has come nowhere near the levels of money spent on the production of content. The long-term objective of these companies has been the introduction of the BBC model (people are charged a fee for using the content). However, all the evidence is that while there exists a large body of free content on the web, people and organizations are unwilling to pay subscriptions to obtain content.

There is no doubt that without government help these commercial organizations would have completely stopped investing in the production of online educational content. The government was forced to respond to the demands that these commercial companies applied (especially as this pressure was being applied by organizations that had the power to shape public opinion). The result is Curriculum Online. This system forces schools to spend money on digital content. This has in the short-term enabled commercial providers of content to survive. However, the problem with a government subsidy like this is that it distorts the market-place. It also protects companies producing poor materials that in normal circumstances teachers would refuse to buy. Once e-learning credits come to an end, they will again refuse to buy these materials. At sometime in the future, probably after the next election, the government will bring an end to this mad scheme.

The government has a two prong strategy. The decision to invest money into projects that result in content being provided free at the point of delivery is far more sensible. My complaint about this is that too much of this money is going to the BBC. As a result of pressure from the European Commission, 50% of this money has to be sub-contracted to commercial companies. Most of this will go to the multinationals (within hours of the European Commission giving permission for the government to give the BBC £150 million, it was announced that Microsoft had been granted a contract to produce a lot of this content). No doubt Bill Gates will become a significant contributor to New Labour’s next election campaign.

My argument has always been that money should be going to small organizations and individual teachers to help produce free online content. In this way this material becomes available to everyone wherever they are in the world. Just think what could be obtained by just spending, say £5 million, on helping members of the ATW to produce this content.

The main reason I believe this is that the best way forward is to ensure teachers play a central role in the development on online resources for the classroom. As Leon Cych (a member of the ATW and this forum) pointed out in his excellent article in yesterday’s TES:

“One main focus of the e-learning consultation process is the question of how public-private models will work. So far it seems that commercial companies are given all the work and have all the responsibility. They design the resource and give it to teachers to test, before taking in a few suggestions and giving it back to teachers as a model.

It is obvious what is missing here – effective pedagogy. Surely, we should start with the teachers. If the companies found and paid those who effectively champion e-learning in the classroom useful solutions would be developed much more quickly.”

My only disagreement with Leon Cych concerns the relationship between the companies and the teachers. My experience of working with large organizations, including the BBC, is that teachers are treated as experts as long as their advice corresponds to the ideas of those in control of the project. I believe the funding has to be made available in such a way that gives more control to the individual teacher producing the material. This is the model that has been successfully used by Comenius. It is also the one that is currently being employed by Becta in its relationship with the European Virtual School.

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I agree with most of what John writes. Market distortions are certainly taking place as a result of government interference, small companies are bein hurt, and teachers are not being involved as much as they should be. The term “mad scheme” is entirely appropriate as a description of Curriculum Online.

I have my doubts about the future of online learning. There are signs in the USA, for example, that enthusiasm is beginning to pall. Critics of the Web lament the disappearance of traditional educational environments, citing the dubious ethics of those who wish to turn our universities into "Digital Diploma Mills" - the title of a five-part series of articles by David Noble (Noble 1997-2001):

“In his classic 1959 study of diploma mills for the American Council on Education, Robert Reid described the typical diploma mill as having the following characteristics: "no classrooms," "faculties are often untrained or non-existent," and "the officers are unethical self-seekers whose qualifications are no better than their offerings." It is an apt description of the digital diploma mills now in the making. Quality higher education will not disappear entirely, but it will soon become the exclusive preserve of the privileged, available only to children of the rich and the powerful. For the rest of us a dismal new era of higher education has dawned. In ten years, we will look upon the wired remains of our once great democratic higher education system and wonder how we let it happen. That is, unless we decide now not to let it happen.” (Noble: ibid. Part I)

Other critics include Press & Washburn. The preamble to their article entitled "Digital Diplomas"says it all:

“Welcome to the brave new world of higher education, where professors are "content experts," classes are "courseware," and students are customers. But just what is a dot-com degree worth?" (Press & Washburn 2001)

Harsh words, but the above authors make some very important points that should not be overlooked in these times of technohype. The Web certainly has its "Dark Side", and evidence is already emerging from North America that online learning may go the same way as some of the early Web businesses that have crashed so spectacularly. Evidence coming out of North America suggests that e-learning courses do not recruit well:

“In 1997, facing a projected 50 percent increase in the state's student population over the next decade, Utah governor Mike Leavitt announced the formation of Western Governors University, a cyber-college backed by governors from 19 states that now offers online courses from 40 schools. "We are turning around the old notion that to be educated one had to go somewhere," Leavitt declared in a speech before the U.S. Senate's Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. "We are going to bring the knowledge and information to the learner," providing students with a high-quality education "while holding costs in check." By January 2000, Western Governors University had enrolled a mere 200 degree-seeking students.” (Press & Washburn 2001)

References

Noble D. (1997-2001) "Distance Education on the Web", a series of five articles: http://communication.ucsd.edu/dl

Press E. & Washburn J. (2001) "Digital Diplomas", Mother Jones Magazine, January/February 2001: http://www.motherjones.com/mother_jones/JF01/diplomas.html

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To enter this debate. I agree with market distortions happening and the failure of "e-learning" across the pond.

In my analysis the reason for this failure is the very nature of the medium of the net. Because it is at once universal, fairly asynchronous, and to many, invisible, without the technology, it is therefore rootless and lacks all "meaning" to users other than to those who make specialist pro-active use of it.

It is also not yet as ubiquitous and seamless as mobile phone technology. Without getting into any more debate about it - the government had high ideals and aspirations for curriculum online but the commercial pressures of many interest groups have hijacked what could have been a wonderful infrastructure.

Also the original plan behind curriculum online was to try and build a contextual information network - what we got instead was a watered down and cumbersome catalogue of thousands of pieces of software. We should have had RDF files, what we got was watered down semi-SCORM compliance which even the BBC knows isn't being ratified yet.

In the first instance they still don't get it about people and the net and they don't get it in a very big way.

I have said on many occasions that trying to sell software on Curriculum Online is like trying to drop a feather into the Grand Canyon and wait for an echo. All commercial firms recognise that the route to market, how to sell their product, is to meet people face to face, provide a solution to a real world problem and show them what the product can do to help. It doesn't sit there in a glass fish bowl in the ether - it's a pro-active person to person process often involving engaging with communities.

People will only engage in online learning if it is meaningful and compelling to them. In the first instance the technology infrastructure has to be so familiar to them that it is easy and mundane to use. They shouldn't have to feel like a technological immigrant. Once that infrastructure is in place and there can be lots of inducements to make that happen in terms of taxation and original thinking to open up new markets then and only then can the next stage start to happen. That of effective pedagogy. Even e-learning courses as far back as the beginning of last year were spouting that distance learning can be effective - I think that maybe it might be if you are motivated enough to engage in that process to further your career in academia but in the real world people will ignore you or not engage unless there is something in it for them.

What is happening in schools at present in terms of kit is a kind of reverse Moore's Law. Unless new models for sustainability and clever workarounds for maintaining and upgrading equipment is put in place then there is going to be a "legacy implosion" any day now where kit and software isn't just kept in cupboards - it will fall apart and no-one will have the resources to mend it.

In the "real world" the networks are beginning to join up. I can send multimedia files to my computer via my phone wirelessly with bluetooth or straight to a web site with GPRS. I would love to have the facility to have a complete, location aware solution as well (it is available but is not being made available fully until 2005 because of legal and moral issues as well as the usual prohibitive pricing structures).

OK - even in a perfect world - if we had full connectivity and a brilliant backup and servicing infrastructure what else is needed?

Well - put quite simply, it's community, community, community :)

Technology will be transformational but it is entirely reliant on the people who use it for "buy in". So far people are trying to make a top down hierarchical model and we all know that with the net that that really doesn't work. I would argue that technology will lead to the deconstruction of certain types of schooling and encourage more competency based learning and competency based learning in teams or communities - in the long run these made transcend age and expertise. But let's rewind a bit.

How do you make an effective learning resource? Look at the BBC - they will roll out the DC [Digital Curriculum] in a couple of years and half the materials will be sub-contracted out to the usual suspects in terms of making online content. Now it doesn't take a crystal ball to see that the Gene Pool of teachers (whatever age) will immediately become depleted. Unless there is a mechanism for co-opting the best people to make effective learning communities and meaningful dissemination and training mechanisms, then it is going to be "son of electronic "educational" spawn " all over the web mark 2 - free maybe but entirely non-used once again.

Why? because the "knowledge economy" is without doubt the one thing that will transform society in the near future and the most valuable resource - the engine that drives that and always has - is a teacher. They are the most valuable asset in this whole enterprise and it is only within a local context that they are most effective. I have always argued for teachers to be at the very central process of making and managing e-learning materials. Commercial firms can bring the technical and marketing expertise but the teachers need to be given the central role in coming up with the ideas of what works. Never mind research, never mind market research, the only people who know what works are the people engaging with pupils every day of the week - the teachers themselves. However if the gene pool of people with vision and expertise is not to be depleted entirely at one fell swoop with the advent of the digital curriculum, then a mechanism for co-opting teachers to come up with the ideas and the infrastructure for managing them at a local level in terms of training and rollout needs to be put in place by the government otherwise you will get the equivalent of people making finely crafted learning objects and inserting them into bottles and throwing them out to sea. Great if you come across one now and again but otherwise...

I call these teachers "twilight people" - not because there is something of the night about them but, at present, they inhabit two worlds not belonging fully in either - the government needs to construct a mechanism and clearing house to co-opt and empower them and do it quickly. But can you see them having the vision?

Community context is the other factor in this whole equation - looking at the work going on in extended schools and the innovative solutions to traditional problems - how can we harness those solutions and make them available more widely? You cannot transplant solutions but you can graft people onto them to solve those problems based on experience. Again, we need the vision to see how new ways of using technology can be transformational.

To do this we need to construct "motors of change" and they have to be fairly dynamic mechanisms to effect that change. This is where real e-learning comes in. In order for it to be effective the whole set of learning criteria need to be examined in the light of technological development on one hand and community involvement on another. So how do you achieve this?

Well it really doesn't take much to see that to make an effective step change you don't introduce a reform model and target achieving mechanism all over again - you merely (merely!) target ring-fenced funding at deconstructing management systems to allow that change. First of all you put money into co-opting and creating management posts for people who will champion and sustain the use of technology within the current school framework. We need to get rid of the half-hearted pockets of amateurism that riddle the system and replace it with focused funding for management posts to do with implementing and sustaining technology. If that means giving more management clout to the ICT HOD then do it but make sure the remit for e-learning is enshrined in the recommended job spec.

Secondly create something akin to an AST post for teachers, whose expertise naturally lies with teaching, learning and creating resources that are effective within their community. Give them non-contact time and secondment to commercial firms to make mutually effective resources - it does work.

Lastly, consider the RBC's and their role in all this. I thought it very telling that the BBC did not invite one person from the RBC's to their recent launch of the DC? If they are going to drive the infrastructure but expect schools to meet the connectivity standards with their present budgets how is it all going to be squared in the long term?

The next five years will be very interesting for e-leaning...

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If the focus in e-learning – as it appears to be – is on distance education then we need to look carefully at the experiences of distance-learning institutions. My wife Sally embarked upon an Open University degree course in the 1970s, finishing in the early 1980s with a very respectable degree, having never sat a public examination in the whole of her school career. In those days the OU distance-learning materials dropped through our letter box, backed up by TV and radio broadcasts at very unsocial hours (we didn’t have a VCR, but we did have a tape recorder). What made the whole thing work was the human factor, i.e. the weekly telephone contact with the tutors, the meetings with other students at the local tech college, the one-week residential summer school but, above all, first-class teaching materials. Technology has changed the ways in which materials are presented and delivered, but let us not forget the lessons of the past…

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But of course it is that combination of materials, expertise and backup but so far all I have heard about e-learning is the concentration on creating generic planning and accountability tools and resources!

What is getting forgotten is the human element in all this - it's exactly what makes you able to filter your email immediately where a machine can't. And that is what I think is getting lost in the current round of rollout.

At Key Stage 2 and 3 many LEA's have already tendered for and given contracts to firms for e-learning materials but I see precious evidence of the infrastructures to roll them out effectively and those invaluable support facilities that make people feel cherished and motivated - just someone to acknowledge you are there at the end of the day - someone to inspire and encourage.

In one notable case a firm did not even pay the teacher whose lesson they videoed (unluckily for them she had secured all the rights and permissions from her students to use that material so they are in breach of her copyright!). This is another can of worms - rights issues...

You are right to say most teachers don't put e-learning at the top of their priorities but maybe they are too weighed down with administration and target setting to be able to make the time to respond to the e-learning consultation. That is why it is so important to feed back now. Otherwise we are giving carte blanche for the ad hoc policies that are current.

One of the questions I put to the ICT KS3 strategy unit was, "Have you done any research into different teaching and learning styles in the context of e-learning." I am still waiting for a reply.

It is all very well patting yourself on the back about rolling out and achieving targets but what I want to know is - what learning style for what person is most effective and what (human) resources and structures working in tandem with these are most effective for which type of person and if they aren't how can we make them more effective, if at all, using e-learning.

Notschool has proved more cost effective in the short term and probably far more so in the long term in terms of integration into society. In many cases what is being learned isn't always academic but a sense of worth, esteem and confidence to succeed. For relatively little seed money there are enormous benefits because people were allowed to do things differently.

I think the rollover of truly integrated networks will transform everything we do in the long run and schools as we know them - especially KS4 and up, and we will have to accommodate that step change. We should be thinking about the structures for that now...

Of course the barriers to all this are the differences between the commercial world in its need to make money and education doing what it does best. Every time the government releases a (relatively) large pot of money - the commercial sector will vie (naturally) to get the lion's share of that. What are needed are financial inducements to make it work in a pragmatic way within the current system.

In the last year I have been lucky enough to attend meetings held for different interest groups, suppliers, teachers, leaders, producers. What always seems to be missing is the political will to create an infrastructure that would co-opt teachers as the main ideas producers. The current systems just encourage metamanagement or smart planning tools on the one hand and "finished" resources on the other.

Part of the problem is the commercial necessity and timescales involved on both sides. Commercial firms have the money and not the time and education doesn't have the money but does have the luxury of time for development. Squaring these timescales and finding mechanisms to make them work would be a start.

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Icych writes:

In one notable case a firm did not even pay the teacher whose lesson they videoed (unluckily for them she had secured all the rights and permissions from her students to use that material so they are in breach of her copyright!). This is another can of worms - rights issues...

I believe I am right in saying that there was a case of a university in North America videoing their staff giving lectures and then making the video recordings available via the university's intranet, thereby attempting to make the staff redundant and replace them with technician. I can't remember the name of the university, but the case was brought to my attention by a Canadian colleague, and I understand it resulted in bitter strike action.

As for rights issues, there are constant breaches of copyright in education. See the following site for guidance. It relates mainly to MFL, but there are links to more general sites concerning IPR:

http://www.ict4lt.org/en/en_copyright.htm

A new profession has emerged - the copyright bounty hunter. Do a search under Google using the words "copyright bounty". I just did and found the following more sinister description of the copyright bounty hunter:

"I've always had people come up to me with examples of friends or neighbors who have been turned in for using Walt Disney graphics and were fined three to five thousand dollars. Many teachers feel they don't have to bother with the copyright law because the "copyright police" aren't going into their classroom to check on them. However, the most common way that teachers end up in court over copyright violation is when a disgruntled employee turns in the teacher down the hall. The "copyright bounty-hunters" are out in force--and, yes, they may very well be in your school."

http://lserver.aea14.k12.ia.us/TechStaffDev/copyright.html

I can cite a real case involving my own business, whereby a copyright bounty hunter (probably a parent) reported my local school to the Federation Against Software Theft (FAST) for distributing software produced by my business to pupils at the school. What the bounty hunter did not know, however, was that my business had an agreement with the school, subject to a licence fee, whereby the school was allowed to distribute the software to pupils. I had to write to FAST explaining the situation.

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Also the original plan behind curriculum online was to try and build a contextual information network - what we got instead was a watered down and cumbersome catalogue of thousands of pieces of software.

People will only engage in online learning if it is meaningful and compelling to them. In the first instance the technology infrastructure has to be so familiar to them that it is easy and mundane to use.

One of the problems seems to me that the government has tried to create an artificial structure rather than working with teachers who had already made inroads into online learning. For example, members of the Association of Teacher Websites, who have created websites without commercial considerations. Their main objective was to create online teaching materials that their students could us in the classroom. We made many mistakes but gradually effective strategies began to emerge. The establishment of the ATW and forums like this one has helped a network of online educators to evolve.

The obvious strategy was for the government to use the experiences and skills of these pioneers of online learning. Instead, the creation of Curriculum Online was an attempt to help commercial companies to survive in a weak marketplace (although I accept Graham’s point that this has actually hurt some small companies – but then again, they were not really the ones the government was trying to help). By placing the emphasis on subscription content, those teachers and small companies trying to provide teachers with the content they needed, have been marginalized.

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If the focus in e-learning – as it appears to be – is on distance education then we need to look carefully at the experiences of distance-learning institutions. My wife Sally embarked upon an Open University degree course in the 1970s, finishing in the early 1980s with a very respectable degree, having never sat a public examination in the whole of her school career. In those days the OU distance-learning materials dropped through our letter box, backed up by TV and radio broadcasts at very unsocial hours (we didn’t have a VCR, but we did have a tape recorder). What made the whole thing work was the human factor, i.e. the weekly telephone contact with the tutors, the meetings with other students at the local tech college, the one-week residential summer school but, above all, first-class teaching materials. Technology has changed the ways in which materials are presented and delivered, but let us not forget the lessons of the past…

Could not agree more with this. Harold Wilson once said that the OU was his greatest achievement in government. Interestingly, it was based on the ideas of his former political mentor, Aneurin Bevan. That is why he selected Bevan’s widow, Jennie Lee, to take the bill through parliament. The Conservatives originally opposed the scheme and planned to axe the measure. However, as Margaret Thatcher pointed out in her memoirs, when they were in government they realized it was a cheap form of education and allowed it to continue.

I was a first year student of the Open University. I was one of those who joined without any formal qualifications. I had left a secondary modern school ten years earlier completely disillusioned with education. The reason the OU was such a success concerned the enthusiasm of the tutors. They were fully committed to the idea of bringing higher education to the working classes (although most of the students, like in conventional universities, were in fact from the middle classes).

Everything I have done in education since, including the development of my website, has been based on what I learnt from the OU. It is no coincidence that the enthusiasm of the early pioneers of online learning, is very similar to that of those of OU tutors in the early 1970s.

What the government needs to do is to recapture that vision and enthusiasm that it managed to achieve with the OU.

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John makes three very important points:

One of the problems seems to me that the government has tried to create an artificial structure rather than working with teachers who had already made inroads into online learning.

I agree 100%!

By placing the emphasis on subscription content, those teachers and small companies trying to provide teachers with the content they needed, have been marginalized.

Absolutely!

What the government needs to do is to recapture that vision and enthusiasm that it managed to achieve with the OU.

Hear! Hear! The OU tends to hold off introducing new technologies as a means of delivering its courses - it's a political thing as they don't want to exclude people who don't have access to the new technologies. They therefore tend to wait until a new technology is well established before integrating it into their courses. However, the OU is doing important leading-edge research into e-learning and some interesting experiments are going on, e.g. in the Institute for Educational Technology: http://iet.open.ac.uk. I have contacts in the languages departments who are engaged in exciting research projects that have been presented at EUROCALL conferences: http://www.eurocall-languages.org. The OU is probably the most experienced and most successful distance-learning institution in the world. They have a very practical approach to e-learning and need to be listened to.

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About the e-Learning Strategy Unit

The e-Learning Strategy Unit's overriding objective is to achieve coherence in Government ICT initiatives which support learning and teaching and in working with our external partners. The Unit is responsible for cross cutting issues across all sectors of learning from pre-school, through school, FE and University to community-based lifelong learning. Issues concerning the digital divide, access to the internet, and community-based e-learning initiatives are core strands of the unit's work.

The Unit carries out a wide range of functions, including:

Identifying issues and recommendations on e-learning matters;

Providing support to Ministerial and groups of senior officials responsible for delivering the e-Learning Strategy;

Hosting the ICT Industry Club - a forum for discussion of educational ICT issues between this Department, other departments, external partners and organisations;

If you would like to find out more about the Unit send an e-mail to e.learning@dfes.gsi.gov.uk

What is e-Learning?

If someone is learning in a way that uses information and communication technologies (ICTs), they are doing e-learning. They could be a pre-school child playing an interactive game; they could be a group of pupils collaborating on a history project with pupils in another country via the Internet; they could be geography students watching an animated diagram of a volcanic eruption their lecturer has just downloaded; they could be a nurse taking her driving theory test online with a reading aid to help her dyslexia - it all counts as e-learning.

Why is it important?

E-learning is already around us in schools, colleges, universities, community centres, in the workplace, and of course in the home. It's important because people are finding that e-learning can make a significant difference: to how quickly they master a skill; how easy it is to study; and, of course, how much they enjoy learning. It's important because it can contribute to all the Government's objectives for education - to raising standards; improving quality; removing barriers to learning and participation in learning, preparing for employment; upskilling in the workplace; and ultimately, ensuring that every learner achieves their full potential.

Why we need a unified e-Learning strategy?

Although there is a lot of e-learning going on already (and the UK is doing relatively well here, in international terms) it is not the kind of development that individuals or institutions can progress on their own. Just as there is no point in being the only person with a mobile phone, you cannot achieve the real potential of e-learning until everyone is using it. Only then can teachers share digital diagrams, or students link into their college website from their work placement, or pupils practise a foreign language through Internet twinning with schools overseas. All these benefits are possible with e-learning, and are already happening. But they are not commonplace. E-learning is not embedded in our teaching and learning, at any level.

The time has come to recognise the benefits that these technologies can bring to the way we teach and learn. It is not enough now to have pockets of brilliant innovation here and there. All learners, at all ages and stages, can benefit from mixing these new technologies with their other forms of study. Government has a responsibility to ensure that the benefits are universal. It also has a role in facilitating change, and tackling those areas where public services need to present a united front to the lifelong learner.

The Vision

Imagine what our education system could do, fuelled by e-learning:

Empower learners - With more active learning, people of all ages could take responsibility for what and how they learn, achieving their personal goals as self-directed lifelong learners

Be creative and innovative - Teaching could be more creative and innovative, in preparation for the 21st- century global knowledge society

Offer flexibility - A more responsive education system would adapt to the needs of all learners, wherever and however they need to learn

Achieve better value - Education leaders could develop innovative ways of deploying their resources, exploiting e-learning alongside other teaching methods, to improve quality and economies of scale

Generate a professional workforce and fulfilled citizens - A community and a workforce for the knowledge society would have a high proportion of people capable of continually updating their knowledge and skills, of managing knowledge transfer, and contributing to practitioner knowledge in all its forms

Main Points of the Strategy Consultation

The main points of the strategy consultation document are a set of proposals for how education leaders, teachers, learners and commercial suppliers might contribute to the process of change. The strategy considers:

For education leaders - how they might turn a traditional educational institution, whether school, college, or university, into one that blends the best of old and new

For teachers - what it would mean for their professional role to mix e-learning with more traditional methods, enabling them to offer more active and creative ways of learning in all subjects, disciplines and skills

For learners - how we make sure that their personal learning needs are met, and that the way they are assessed keeps pace with these new kinds of learning

For the commercial suppliers of ICT systems, software publishers and service providers - how they might support these new approaches that should, after all, give them graduates from the education system with highly employable skills

Embedding e-learning will not happen fast. This is a long-term strategy that looks ahead to years when the technology will probably have evolved further. That is all part of the strategy - how we prepare ourselves, through our education system, to cope with an ever-changing world.

Most importantly, this is a unified e-learning strategy for the whole of England. There are e-learning strategies being developed at every level - in the four countries of the UK, in local authorities, institutions, agencies, and departments, as well as in private sector organisations. E-learning does not recognise these physical boundaries. Coming together to consider how best to blend e-learning with our existing systems will benefit all partners.

The consultation process runs for several months, until 30 January 2004, to allow all members of the education and training professions, learners, and suppliers to engage in the debate to the full. We have learned a lot from the experience that is now widespread in all sectors of education and training, both institutional and voluntary. There is enthusiasm, understanding and expertise in place to build on. We are well placed to make the next step change to a system-wide approach to embedding e-learning in way that will benefit all learners and teachers.

How You Can Get Involved

This strategy will involve a wide range of people from Head Teachers, College Principals and Vice Chancellors through teachers and lecturers to individual learners and would-be learners. Employers will be interested in how e-learning can improve the skills of their workforce, and the ICT industry has a close interest in the state of the digital learning resources market. Trade Unions will be involved through their Union Learning Representatives. In short, there are few people in this country who will be unaffected by the proposals in this document. We are therefore keen to hear all your views on the strategy and on what you see as the priorities. We would like to hear from you by 30 January 2004.

We will consider all replies that reach us by the deadline - individuals' views are as important to us as those of organisations and institutions.

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I am a classroom practitioner in an international school. Every student carries their own laptop computer to every lesson and we have a network point at each desk and a multimedia projector in each classroom. I have been following this forum with interest.

The idea of blending the best of the old and the new to offer more active and creative ways of learning is something I try to do every day. Unfortunately I find myself constrained by an assessment system which demands the students to hand write answers to questions on paper booklets and only uses new technologies to mark the short pencil lines drawn on multiple choice answer sheets. The risk of students reading each other’s coursework or searching for information on the web creates the constant fear of plagiarism to the extent that many useful sources of information for students are now safely behind our firewall.

In my view the most effective way to promote the use of ICT in education is to radically modernise the assessment of students so that it provides a measure of skills and competences needed in the 21st century workplace and beyond. Reward the innovative and creative use of ICT in assessment and both learners and educators will devote time to develop these skills.

I recognise that e-learning creates opportunities for a whole range of new and creative approaches to learning. I agree with the comments about the achievements of the OU in distance learning. I welcome research into the new possibilities which ICT offers and perhaps this will change the structure of educational institutions too but the one comment which for me sums up the key to success in the development of e-learning is this one from lcych,

the "knowledge economy" is without doubt the one thing that will transform society in the near future and the most valuable resource - the engine that drives that and always has - is a teacher. They are the most valuable asset in this whole enterprise and it is only within a local context that they are most effective. I have always argued for teachers to be at the very central process of making and managing e-learning materials

There are many teachers like myself who have; invested time putting teaching resources onto a freely accessible websites, who have tried to be innovative and adapt their teaching to their students, who have experimented with a range of teaching and learning styles, and who have shared ideas with colleagues and in other schools across the world. After all, this is what teachers have done well for many years.

After three years of hard work I remain convinced that the education which the students receive in my school is already much more relevant to the world of work in the 21st century and my enthusiasm for laptop education is undiminished.

Through collaboration with my peers and support from polticians we could make great progress. The establishment of the ATW and forums like this one has helped a network of online educators to evolve. Lets see some changes in the assessment system to drive faster evolution and also, rather than giving millions to commercial organisations to show teachers how to suck eggs, lets see some confidence in the education profession at grass roots level.

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Unfortunately I find myself constrained by an assessment system which demands the students to hand write answers to questions on paper booklets and only uses new technologies to mark the short pencil lines drawn on multiple choice answer sheets.

This seems very short-sighted. I have worked as an external examiner for three different UK universities over the last 10 years. All three now require essays submitted by students to be in word-processed format.

My subject discipline is Modern Foreign Languages. We recently introduced a module on Computer Aided Assessment at the ICT4LT site: http://www.ict4lt.org/en/en_mod4-1.htm

It may be of general interest too. We cover topics such as using Microsoft Word's features to mark students' work, online diagnostic language testing and overcoming problems of plagiarism.

One of the advantages of computers is that they offer tremendous scope for autonomous learning. I only ever attended one course in ICT, way back in 1979. It focused exclusively on ICT applications to language and literature - ICT training has to be subject-specific, otherwise it can seem pointless. Since then I have been completely in control of my learning curve, drawing on the expertise of others whenever I needed it, experimenting with different approaches to see if they worked and, more recently, using the Web as a huge research library. Laptops are a vital tool in autonomous learning.

What bothers me most about modern approaches to e-learning is that they are often wrapped up in controlled environments. I prefer a much freer approach. When I designed the ICT4LT site I resisted wrapping it up in a controlled environment, preferring instead to offer a variety of materials into which teachers could dip as and when they needed to, addressing questions to experts via a feedback form if necessary. Every module can also be printed and can be used as a support for face-to face training - it is assumed that face-to-face training is essnetial at some stage. I took note of research by experts such as Jakob Nielsen, who found that people read around 25%-30% more slowly from the computer screen and tend to skim rather than read word by word: see "Be Succinct! Writing for the Web", Alertbox for March 15, 1997: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9703b.html

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I think it is correct that many teachers consider e-learning to be "just another initiative" and that the more initiatives the powers that be have the less scope there is for initiative from teachers and pupils.

I believe that the framework for ICT at KS3 exemplifies the problem. If taken literally it would dictate what teachers and pupils do every minute of every lesson. One colleague used the metaphor that we are serving pupils pot noodle the whole time so they will never develop a taste for real food ;)

However the other side of the framework lies in the fact that it is just a framework and teachers can add or subtract and there are references tucked away in the paperwork to using alternatives appropriate to local conditions.

We need more horizontal structures and fewer vertical ones (yes I have been talking to my anarchist son about this,,,,but bear with me). Everyone knows that the real value of inset on a regional basis is the discussions which teachers have with other teachers rather than the official agenda - worthy as it might be. Teachers need more methods of sharing what they actually do (rather than prescribed "best practice" - which is an authoritarian cocept if there ever was one) as well as materials which have been used to subvert (improve) the framework.

I will also reiterate the point that the framework as it stands is an uninterrupted paean of praise for Microsoft and yet free open-source alternatives exist for most of the applications. Children will benefit from a variety of software rather than the "bog standard" Microsoft.

It is also the case that the government is violating its own "best value" ethos by pushing Microsoft.

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