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Collapse of Britain's first e-university.

John Simkin

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In February 2000, David Blunkett, announced the establishment of UKeU, Britain's first e-university. The government spent £62m on the project. However, it was a commercial venture as the plan was to run and deliver e-learning to students around the world. A £20m contract was given to Sun Microsystems to build an e-learning platform for UKeU. This decision was questioned by experts in this field who pointed out that you could buy off-the-shelf technology at a fraction of the price. The Sun Microsystems platform was so bad that only 215 of the university's 900 students used it. Despite the poor record of UkeU (900 students out of a target of 5,000) John Beaumont, the CEO, awarded himself a £45,000 bonus on top of his £180,000 salary. This week it was announced that the Higher Education Funding Council for England is to dismantle UKeU, the company set up to run the project and is seeking to sell its assets. As this comprises the e-learning platform developed by Sun Microsystems the British taxpayer is unlikely to get any of its £62m back. The House of Commons Education Committee is looking into the role of the Higher Education Funding Council for England in this debacle. I would suggest they look at the decision to give Sun Microsystems the contract to produce the e-learning platform.


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I listened to a presentation of UKeU by Jonathan Darby at the Net Learning Conference in Sweden in 2002. I thought at the time of the old Irish joke about the English tourist who asks a local how to get to Limerick. The answer is "If I was going to Limerick, I wouldn't start from here."

Fancy starting to create an on-line university by writing a platform programme! (And why not listen to the Open University, who were arguably already doing the job of delivering higher education on-line).

I've been an interested observer of this kind of project for many years now. When the Employee Investment Funds were abolished in Sweden in 1994, the then Conservative government put the millions of kronor into closed trusts (largely staffed by their supporters), one of which was specifically designed to encourage IT development. When I'd seen the almost total divorce from reality of many of the projects this particular trust funded, I came to the conclusion that such things were really supposed to divert money into particular people's pockets, rather than to actually achieve their stated aims. I coined a term for such things: spips (stands for Something Posh to Impress the Punters).

It makes life much easier whenever someone higher up starts getting enthusiastic about IT in education. We just have to find out if they're talking about something real, or just a spip. If it's a spip, you know you only actually have to produce the front page - the rest can be blank!

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I’m not really surprised about the collapse of UKeU. I was involved as a consultant to a project that probably would have been incorporated into UKeU if it had got off the ground, namely a venture known as the Language House, which was initiated by HEFCE in early 2001 and to be linked with another project (for schools) called the Language Village.

HEFCE clearly had in mind a full-blown set of online languages courses in a VLE, which they thought was a cheaper alternative to delivering language courses face-to-face :) . But most of the HE language lecturers on the Language House steering committee were in favour of a more loosely structured set of online resources – and this was my view too. Anyway. the Language House never got off the ground, one of the reasons being that the estimated costs of setting up the online courses in a VLE and maintaining them - as calculated by a external team of consultants - were frightening.

Around the time that the UKeU was being discussed I recall reading the following, which I mentioned to a number of key players at the time, but I don't think the message sank in.

“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 E. & Washburn J. (2001) “Digital Diplomas”, Mother Jones Magazine, January/February 2001:


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In a sense what we're trying to do in our corner of Sweden is to create some kind of eU. Our approach is incremental, though, and uses existing technology and methods as much as possible. We're in the business of 'sucking it and seeing' too, and of exploiting each new technological advance as it comes along, rather than trying to technology innovators and educational providers at the same time.

I'm not saying that our approach is superior to that of UKeU … but we're still around!

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David writes:

Fancy starting to create an on-line university by writing a platform programme! (And why not listen to the Open University, who were arguably already doing the job of delivering higher education on-line).

I agree. Starting with the platform was a stupid idea. Starting with the technology in general is a stupid idea. The Open University, as David says, has been doing a good job in delivering distance learning, but it's largely low-tech. The OU holds off introducing technological solutions until it is sure that its potential user base has access to the technology - it's a political thing and all to do with inclusivity. This is not to say, however, that the OU is ignoring new technological developments. It is doing valuable research in this area, e.g. in the Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology (CREET). See, for example, Robin Goodfellow's keynote at EUROCALL 2003, where he mentions Lyceum, an environment in use at the OU that creates the possibility for a mixture of modes of interaction between participants, including real time speaking, and collaborative document creation:


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  • 6 months later...

One wonders what the real reasons behind initiatives such as this are. Perhaps just a political front-end? Or is it just that we cannot deliver 'virtua courses'? For me the reality is 'who will use a virtual university when there is a real one round the corner?'

The biggest developments have been happening in Spain - where the spanish universities are serving many, many thousands of students in Latin America in the Spanish language - so two factors here are:

1. low(er) development/inadequate provision of higher education in an area and

2. courses in a non-English language......

(so location/Geography/Economics and language would seem to be important)

Maybe we can learn from this. Perhaps virtual university will remain a niche operation elsewhere.

So I agree with all contributors, though I think it just gives all of the good online practice that is out there a really bad name. I suggest also that perhaps something may have been fundamentally wrong with what was being attempted.


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>it just gives all of the good online practice that is out there a really bad name<

Online learning isn't the problem, it's the way it's used. There's a long history of failure in wholly technology-delivered courses, starting with a well-endowed American university in the early days of computer-based language learning. A scheme was devised to teach Bulgarian there via computer-assisted instruction because teachers of the language were so hard to find. Very bright students enrolled on the course, excited by the prospect of the "brave new world" of IT. After a few months every one of them had dropped out. Why? The lack of human contact. The social dimension is an indispensable component of the educational process. Interaction with a machine just doesn't pass muster if that's all there is available.

Online learning can be an effective vehicle of course delivery, but it will ultimately fail if it is the only method of study on offer. I enjoyed studying for my special educational needs qualification with the Open University at home because I didn't have to attend weekly evening meetings at remote venues when I was tired after work. But I also made sure I went to the twice termly meetings for human contact with fellow students and to check with a tutor that my assignments were on the right track. I also liked receiving regular esteem-boosting phone calls from my tutor. Variety is the spice of life and delivery of education via one medium, whether electronic or traditional, is a poor substitute.

David Wilson


Edited by David Wilson
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Karl asks:

One wonders what the real reasons behind initiatives such as this are. Perhaps just a political front-end?

Two main reasons:

1. e-Learning is perceived by the administrators as saving money: i.e. mass delivery of courses with a small number of content providers and teachers: v. the fiasco at York University, Toronto, which resulted in a bitter strike and gave rise to David Noble's thought-provoking series of articles:

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

2. As Karl says, a political front-end. It is rumoured that the current UK government has pumped money into ICT because Tony Blair is a technophobe and is desperate to dispel this image.

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And, I think, e-learning (in its official guise) taps into a very deeply-felt feeling among educational administrators: the burning desire to get rid of the influence of teachers. In almost every other branch of industry, the managers know more about the business than the people on the shop floor, and are thus able to control what goes on, and what develops.

In education, on the other hand, just about all there is happens at the interface between one person and another (whether they be officially called 'teachers' or 'students'). One of my quiet questions to adminstrators within our university is "where are the assets of this Högskola?" They can't be in the buildings, since we rent them. They can't be in the physical equipment, since it depreciates by 30% each year. And in any case, those things are facilitating factors in creating value - they don't create value in themselves. The only capital we possess lies in the heads of the teachers … and that really pisses managers off.

The idea that they can somehow get machines to do what these people do is incredibly tempting … but the experience of the last 30 or 40 years is a history of one expensive failure after another.

I had a discussion recently with someone who was peddling yet another attempt to teach pronunciation by showing an oscilloscope picture with the 'right' pronunciation, which the student had to compare with her own and progressively imitate. "This will transform language learning" says the technocrat. "Any competent human teacher can do much better" says I, "because we cheat … by smiling when the student starts getting it right, by saying hello to them when we meet them in the street, by changing the nature of the task subtly as the student improves, so that she doesn't feel that she's being patronised".

When it comes to language learning via technology, I use the Orwellian test of what makes good literature (it survives). If the Linguaphone/Berlitz method worked (for any but a very special group of students), then there wouldn't be any language teachers left in the world. Since there are, it doesn't!

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David writes:

I had a discussion recently with someone who was peddling yet another attempt to teach pronunciation by showing an oscilloscope picture with the 'right' pronunciation, which the student had to compare with her own and progressively imitate.

There are lots of packages of this sort on the market. The spectograph is mainly a gimmick, but some students can be encouraged by such gimmicks and will really make an effort to match their voiceprint with that of a native speaker - but, even as an experienced language teacher - I cannot read a voiceprint with any degree of accuracy.

I have just been in contact with a business that has received a substantial grant to develop a package to teach listening skills and pronunciation (in French, German and Spanis) with the aid of a voice synthesiser that reads out texts. I questioned the advisability of this approach and asked them why they could not use native speakers to record the texts. Their reply was that they wanted the user to be able to input ANY sample text. I listened to a couple of sample texts - not bad and certainly a useful tool for the visually impaired, but isn't this another typical case of the technology driving the pedagogy?

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  • 2 months later...

>it just gives all of the good online practice that is out there a really bad name<

"Interaction with a machine just doesn't pass muster if that's all there is available."


In the use of this forum, do you feel you are interacting with machines, even though you know there are real people at the other end of your keyboard?

(as opposed to an artificial intelligence program :) )

I actually hold the opposite view, that blog like written interaction is much better and more desirable, more concise - as it removes personality and inhibition. Imagine the shy student who fails miserably at spoken communication.

I ask, because I have been developing a scaled indexing system that would organize the sum of all human knowledge: The "Weighted Scales Indexing System" does away with Universities, Professors and Degrees.

This is an indexing and categorizing system with many scales. The scale values are set by "experts" who vote in a forum similar to educationforum. Data is

categorized in the same manner. Imagine the sum of all human knowledge

reduced to memes and indexed and rated by the experts. One becomes an

expert in a particular field - by taking tests on line and by peer

review and acceptance. The better your knowledge, the higher "weight"

your votes have.

Here is an example. Imagine a scale for truth - with one end of the

scale being fact - and the other end fiction.

If it is appropriate to apply the "truth" scale to a meme

<(what is a meme)

then the forum would address and debate challenges to the truth value.

Even the system by which individual thoughts are strained out of their

containing book, lecture, etc... into memes would be controlled by the


Given this system: One would become an expert, not by paying money and

attending classes, but by simply participating in the system, taking tests, and surviving peer review.

This shift from a static (when you attend a University you get a

snapshot of knowledge at a particular point in time) to a dynamic

knowledge base not only does away with Universities (all traditional

schools for that matter) but also does away with all Governments.

Think about it. This is the next logical step in the evolution of mankind..

Not a "pure Democracy" but a Democracy that gives the "smart" people (experts) more votes. (weighted)

I believe the problem with online education is that it tries to enhance or replicate the current educational system, acting more as a communications tool than the "mega brain" that the human race should be evolving toward.

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John asks:

In the use of this forum, do you feel you are interacting with machines, even though you know there are real people at the other end of your keyboard?

Ah - just like the scene in David Lodge's "Small World", where one of his characters, Robin Dempsey (reputed to have been based on a real person at the University of Birmingham) thinks he is interacting with an "Eliza" program but is actually interacting with the mischievous Josh Collins. When Robin finds out it ends in a brawl on the computer room floor.

I am reminded too of Alan Turing. Alan Turing was one of the first computer scientists to set up a yardstick for measuring machine intelligence: the famous "Turing Test", which hinges on the ability of the computer, or rather the set of instructions with which it has been programmed, to convince a person communicating with it via a remote terminal that it is a human being and not a machine.

Then there is John Searle's Chinese Room computer. A human being may ask the Chinese Room computer questions in Chinese by posting them into the room in written form. The Chinese Room appears to understand Chinese as it is able to deliver written answers to the questions. What is happening, however, is that there is an operator inside the room who identifies each character in a dictionary and checks the rules of grammar and usage in order to ascertain the meaning of the question. He then assembles an answer, again by checking his dictionary and the rules of grammar and usage. He does not, however, understand Chinese; he is simply manipulating symbols according to a set of elaborate rules.

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The latest from Guardian OnLine

Internet degrees a disgraceful waste, say MPs

Rebecca Smithers, education editor

Thursday March 3, 2005

The Guardian

A government initiative to offer British university degree courses over the internet is condemned by MPs today as a "disgraceful waste" of public money after it recruited just 900 students at a cost of £50m.

An investigation by the Commons education select committee found that studying at the UK e-University, which folded last year six months after the launch of its first courses, cost an average of £44,000 per student - more expensive than going to Oxford or Cambridge.

The committee condemned as "wholly unacceptable and morally indefensible", the decision to award its chief executive, John Beaumont, a bonus of £44,914 on top of his £180,000 annual salary, despite his failure to attract private-sector backers for the venture.

The e-University was launched in 2000 by the then education secretary David Blunkett. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which oversaw the project for the Department of Education, said it was intended to be "the flagship provision of UK higher education excellence". Mr Blunkett predicted e-learning would be "big business".

But the committee found that those responsible for the project were caught up in the "general atmosphere of enthusiasm surrounding the dotcom boom" and assumed that students and profits would flood in. Initial business plans forecast rapid growth to 110,000 students within six years and 250,000 in a decade, with projected profits of more than £110m.

There was little market research to determine the true demand for the e-University's services, the report reveals. Just £4.2m was spent on worldwide sales and marketing of courses, compared with £14m on developing the virtual environment through which students would study.

This was developed by Sun Microsystems. It absorbed more than a quarter of the e-University's expenditure, but was used by just 200 students, with the rest preferring to work through the existing online sites of individual universities.

The e-University "blindly" pursued a policy of offering entirely internet-based learning, despite evidence that students preferred to supplement online study with traditional lectures and seminars, the committee found.

Although the project was required by the conditions of its grant to seek 50% of its funding from private-sector partners, it signed up only one small investor other than Sun, securing just 0.5% of the private funding needed.

With no significant private investors and no direct accountability to a government minister, the e-University had "too much freedom to spend public money as it wished", the report said. HEFCE closed the venture in February last year, when it became clear how few students had signed up.

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the committee, said: "UK e-University was a terrible waste of public money. The senior executives failed to interest any private investors and showed an extraordinary overconfidence in their ability to attract students to the scheme. Any private company which rewards underperformance of this scale would normally face severe criticism... The UK e-University should have been held fully accountable for its spending as soon as private companies decided not to invest."

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As I have indicated elsewhere in this Forum - in the Modern Languages section - the BBC is abandoning the production of TV programmes for adult language learners in favour of more Internet-based resources. The BBC's websites for languages are pretty good on the whole, but they are no substitute for TV programmes - e.g. the recent interesting series on the Chinese language and culture. However, there are some signs that there may be a rethink as a result of pressure both from professional associations and individuals. The "rush to the Web" is complete madness. Sure, the Web has an important role to play, but it's not the only solution - or the best solution - to the delivery of mass education.

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This is what happens when we simply accept that "doing it" with a computer will be better. It just isn't so. Too bad we have to spend tons of money to come to the realisation that there is no proof for:

anything + computer = better

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