The Future of E-Learning and Higher Education

For me, after the NHS, the Open University has been the greatest social innovation in the UK since WWII. Founded in 1969, in its 25th year it has as many students (circa 150,000) as HE had in the year it was founded. Today many millions of students study in Open Universities around the world built on and developed from the British model.

I declare an interest as a past trustee of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, the last body established by Michael , Lord Young of Dartington, the inspiration for the ‘University of the Air’, whose legacy lives on through the Young Foundation.

The great insight in the 1960s was to see an opportunity made possible by the pervasive nature of TV, and to ride on the development of the video recorder to create a new route for access to adult learning. There were many innovations, such as team-based curriculum development, summer schools. A new institution was built with a campus in Milton Keynes with no students.

Since those days there have been many developments in technology in the fields of e-learning and m-learning. There is however, an important difference. Most of these developments have occurred within existing institutional arrangements. In particular, the growth in network-based e-learning since the 1990s has been inside the framework of schools, colleges and universities. This has happened for good reason.

Penetration of digital technologies in the home in the early 1990s was poorly developed. We are now approaching the point where home penetration is approaching the levels that TV had in the 1960s. With new mobile and tablet forms along with e-readers, we have a new generation of devices, like the video recorder in the 1970s, combined with broadband technologies which open up new possibilities for learning.

I am a first-generation HE student in my family and my life has been enormously enriched by my university in the 1970s. Like many parents, I am concerned with the increasing fees and levels of student debt. For me, access to Higher Education for all who can benefit is the hallmark of civilisation in the 21st century. In many countries, not just the UK, however, we find the argument about the dilemma that we can’t afford to do it and we can’t afford not to do it.

In the 1990s, the IPPR developed the notion of the ‘University for Industry’. UfI or Learn Direct as implemented under New Labour focussed mainly on the basic skills agenda (for good reason). Leaving aside the UKeU project, which failed for many reasons, most developments have been inside existing institutions.

There have been some interesting and innovative examples in alternative models of schooling such as Not School.

I am a great fan of, and user of the iTunes U platform. There is a growing wealth of high-quality materials available from some of the world’s great institutions. For me it feels that the world of learning is full of interesting possibilities that remain unseized.

The OU was founded shortly after the 1967 devaluation in harsh economic times. It was initially thought of as a ‘University of the Second Chance’, to provide a route to higher learning for the majority who had missed out.

So, if we invoke the imagination and innovative spirit of those 60s pioneers to the technological possibilities of today, what would we envisage?

It seems to me that there would be two obvious focuses for a new organisational form of HE. First, would be Continuous Professional Development and Lifelong Learning for Adults. The second would be to enhance the transfer of the UK research base into the entrepreneurial economy.

The UK has a rich and diverse set of existing Higher Education Institutions. In that mix is the OU. The system also has a history of collaboration in networking around JANET and SuperJanet. Since the 70s the sector has changed dramatically with many more older and part-time students for instance.

When the University for Industry was first explained to me, the idea was not that it should itself become a teaching institution but rather a ‘signpost’ to learning. I can remember metaphors like the ‘BACS for learning’ and ‘a travel agent’ for HE being thrown around.

I think however that we are missing out if we assume that tweaking the existing institutions is all that is needed, or indeed possible.

In its early days the OU had many sceptics and cynics. It was said that you couldn’t teach science by TV. E-learning and M-Learning today still have their detractors and nay sayers, but also a wealth of research on what works.

So, here is the challenge. Given the developments in technology in the home and workplace of the last decade and the next, how could we build a new path for access to Higher Education that will reduce the cost burden on the young, maintain and enhance the quality of learning, and protect both humanities and the STEM subjects? Is that path best served by existing institutional arrangements or do we need a new set of institutional arrangements?

HE is more than just about the subject studied. The social and personal development of the learner is itself core to civilised values as well as economic competitiveness. E- and M- learning are partners, not competitors, to traditional modes of learning.

Solve that challenge and it could be a wonderful gift to the world for the 21st century, as the OU was to the 20th. Go for it!

Comments (5)

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  • 1
    David Longman wrote on 23rd Jul 2011

    Agree with your general argument. However, the political and bureaucratic will to change the way our HE operates is just not there and current strategies may be making our situation worse. As I see it, the issue is not how to enable the learner but how to liberate the educator (teachers, lecturers, practitioners) from the stupefaction of an organisational culture that on the one hand declares itself to be in favour of innovation and creativity but on the other is obsessed with micromanagement.
    These two features stand in opposition, particularly in the present economic and cultural emergency. Creativity and innovation cannot be micromanaged, nor can they always be judged by current standards (because innovation by its nature will often stand outside current standards). While your example of the OU should not be oversimplified, yes, in its time it was a radical departure from institutional norms. But today, I do not see any University willing to take significant risks yet in many individual cases in HE (my own included?) given the threats to our survival that we face our only option may be 'Risk All or Die'. As it is, many of our instutitions are rapidly asphyxiating.

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  • 2
    Niki Davis wrote on 24th Jul 2011

    Very interesting to see this view from the other end of the world, and here in New Zealand I am leading a project to envision the future of tertiary education in 2016 for New Zealand - that may also expand into scenario sets for other peoples and regions. Like other ‘futuring’ projects, our aim is to draw us towards a better tomorrow by informing those involved in tertiary education of possible futures. We aim to start socially networking our first scenario set in August and you can see more about our project on

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  • 3
    Chris Wainwright wrote on 28th Jul 2011

    Having spent a first career in industry and a second as a lecturer and programme leader in the HE activities of a major UK college I suspect that the "knowledge" component of education is fast becoming a "globalised commodity" but that the group discussions, personal tutorials, assessments and academic quality assurance processes needed to develop "understanding" remain "local and personalised" (thus expensive) - in other words that knowledge is global but learning is local (personal). The potential in all this for distance learning (self learing and accreditation of experiential learning) is still in its infancy as the educational establishment still administers itself and its staffing based on "teaching hours" (i.e. inputs) delivered.

    As and when funding agencies and educational administrators manage to move away from this outdated model we may see some progress.

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  • 4
    Paul Bacsich wrote on 24th Aug 2011

    Key is to free up the organisational and funding models. US is not the only answer but the current framework in England (and UK more widely) does not encourage step change in institutions. There needs to be a climate to allow new HEIs to form - and some old ones to dwindle or merge (cf Wales). Oligopolistic players like OU and Ufi are (arguably) bad for the sector and should be demerged/homenationed - as I said in 2002. Oh - and the problem is worse for UK FE colleges. - with about 4 exceptions.

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  • 5
    Sue Fewster wrote on 13th Feb 2012

    As a graduate of the OU I heartily endorse everything said here. It was a conversation with Chris (when we were both at ICL) that encouraged me to study with the OU - I am now embarking on a Masters degree in philosophy. The OU is now charging £2500 per module (from £700). It has itself become a commodity, thanks to the cuts in higher education funding. It could have become one of the tools to deliver the future: High value, low cost attainable knowledge delivery - instead many like myself, with few qualifications will be deterred from trying to improve our minds by a cost that is too high for too many. It saddens me that the short sighted politicians have not listened to the experts.

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

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November 2017