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Syllabus2002 Conference Review: Innovations Battle Budgets for eLearning Market Share

In a recent survey of university students asked to react to an online study companion for a course on Homer, a student at the U.K.’s Open University, said, “I wish I’d had (the CD-ROM) before—there’s no other way to pick up certain things ... you can be like a scholar.”

For the teacher, the comment captured the essence of eLearning: not only to make learning more convenient, but to give students tools for exploring material in personal and active ways, like scholars do. “When you’re sitting there in a lecture, when you’re sitting there reading a book, you can’t deconstruct it,” said eLearning evangelist Diana Laurillard. “The whole point of these great technologies is that they make the student more active in their learning. They’re not just transmission of an idea ...but facilitating their coming to an understanding of what we know.”

Laurillard is pro-vice chancellor for learning technologies and teaching at the U.K.’s Open University and was the opening keynote speaker at the Syllabus2002 summer conference, where educators met last month to assess the state of eLearning in higher education and hash out strategies for maintaining eLearning programs during the current downward economic spiral.

Most educators at the conference said they believe that while the eLearning market is fertile with innovations like the Homer companion, it is also fraught with economic and technology challenges. “If you were comparing eLearning with film as a medium, I think we’re still pre-Keystone Cops really,” said Laurillard. “We’re a long way back, there’s a hell of a long way to go before we really exploit these media.”

For Judith Boettcher, executive director of the Corporation for Research and Educational Networking, an eLearning think tank, it will be 2012 before campus infrastructures are sufficiently digital to support pervasive electronic learning. “When we get there, we will look back with awe, wondering how we navigated our way from the analog to the digital world,” she said. “We’ve had a rough ride in the last five years, but I think we have another 10 to go.”

The path has been made rougher in the last year as U.S. economic engine continues to sputter. State budgets are down dramatically across the country, with IT projects at state-supported colleges and universities under pressure to cut costs and justify investment. The University of California system alone is facing $29 million in tech budget cuts, while Cal State must whittle $43 million from its bottom line.

At the same time, education IT expenses are soaring. Consulting firm Dun & Bradstreet estimates expenditures for IT in higher education will rise 13 percent this year, to $3.3 billion—$4.4 billion when outsourcing is counted. In many cases, IT costs on individual campuses will reach or exceed 20 percent of their instructional education budgets.

In this environment, educators are being frequently asked—and often forced—to justify every dollar spent on eLearning. According to conference-g'ers, the situation reflects not only the new realities of the economy, but the maturing of the eLearning marketplace.

“During the Gold Rush you didn’t necessarily need a business model, you needed three PowerPoint slides and a sales pitch and you could raise $5 million,” says Gary Brown, director of the Center for Teaching Learning in Technology at Washington State University. “Since it went bust, there is a much more sober conversation occurring that is tied to evaluation and assessment. Because of that, I think some of the hype has been peeled off and we’re moving toward things that really can make a difference, create change, and have meaning in the every day working reality of what we do as educators.”

For Laurillard, cost-control are part and parcel of innovation. In a presentation on “Form & Content in Pedagogic Design,” she outlined the case for developing “customizable standard design tools,” generic electronic teaching forms that educators could adapt easily to create their own interactive learning tools. While using standardized tools tends to make some academics nervous, Laurillard argues the strategy is pedagogically sound and financially prudent.

“One of the reasons we should do it is [because] it’s actually terribly difficult to afford doing all this ourselves. And as you compare the costs of eLearning with the costs of traditional learning, it begins to become frighteningly expensive.”

The solution, she says, lies partly in the idea of partially standardized applications. “Instead of doing your own Web tools, instead of doing your own version of conferencing, instead of doing your own interactive marked assignments, you base it on some standardized form in which you put your own data. If you wanted to reduce cost, it would be possible through that sort of customization process.”

‘PowerPoint’ of eLearning

One example she cited, a technology called Digital Document Discussion Environment, or D3E, would enable instructors to rapidly graft an electronic forum onto a Web site. With D3E, documents—a research paper, a policy proposal, a multimedia student assignment—could be transformed in minutes from HTML into an interactive document tightly integrated with topical discussion threads.

Laurillard called D3E the “PowerPoint of interactive media.” She said, “We all know how to work with PowerPoint. There’s a structured format there. It works very well for presentation. You just put your own content in. It should be as easy as that.... You should just be able to fill in the form, link to the Web sites, define your argument, and there you are. You’ve got something which works, and you know works because other people have tried it.”

The simplicity of the tool—”we’ve got to make it as easy to use as the blackboard,” Laurillard says—is to create a community of practice “so that teachers become professionals in the sphere of teaching as much as they are professionals in the sphere of research.”

Straight to Bottom Line

In the economics of eLearning cost control is king, but many also believe distance education programs can still add positively to the bottom line. “The technology is not only empowering us to do more things in research and teaching, it’s allowing us to do some things economically that I think are very, very powerful and useful in these times for our universities,” Bill Riffee, associate provost at the University of Florida, told the conference.

In the midst of state revenue shortfalls and the university’s resulting budget cuts, Riffee said UF’s distance executive education programs are adding $8 million to university coffers, up from $200,000 just four years ago. “And that money is funneled back in to the help supplement faculty, to help do some interesting things. And it’s not a revenue stream that should be dismissed. It’s a very healthy one.”

The other way to find money for new programs is the traditional method: beg, borrow—or institute an in-house tax. The University of Washington has a program called the University Initiative Fund, which levies a 1 percent progressive tax on all departments on campus to create a pool of money to fund innovative new projects.

“As you can imagine, it’s not without its controversy,” said Scott Macklin, director of the “Educational Transformation Through Technology” program at the university. “Some people call it the most precious money on campus. But one of the ways to get campus buy-in is to take their money, because they’re going to follow it [and that] has given us the possibility (to demonstrate) the impact of what we’ve been doing research-wise.”

Of course, once money is found for eLearning, administrators and budgeters are increasingly focused on ways to measure the return on those funds. Jack McCready, associate chancellor and chief information officer for the University of California at Berkeley, which conducted extensive cost studies of a first-year chemistry course, said that while there was an increase in total set-up costs for building eLearning infrastructures, the school expected to see higher performance outcomes.

“I think when you are on the innovation side of many of these experiments, that the costs are definitely higher to develop these things,” he told the conference. “But certainly the initial results are showing that the outcomes are certainly higher. Certainly the outcomes on student enthusiasm and excitement are higher. Whether true outcomes on performance are higher is a little harder to measure, but I think the preliminary indications on this are that yes, they’re getting results in that area also.”

Gary Brown, director of the Center for Teaching Learning in Technology at Washington State University, said a more pertinent analysis might be to look the cost of not investing in technology. “How would you calculate that cost?” he said. “I suppose there’s an Amish university somewhere that can get away with that, but I don’t know where else we might be able to do that.”

Brown said Washington State has been involved in a number of cost studies, which yielded some interesting cost relationships. “We found...that more time on design saves time on development. And development time is more expensive than design time. So faculty time is always the key cost driver there. And the number of students enrolled is the other cost factor that drives the effectiveness of this.”

Another possibly controversial finding: “faculty time d'esn’t significantly change,” says Brown. “But their perceptions of their time certainly change ... We found it to be true with students too. They will tell you that they spend twice as much time reading as they do looking at the same material when it’s in video, when in fact, video takes twice as long. So technology d'es change your perception of time, if not the amount of time that you spend.”

The university is now examining at the relationship between cost and learning. “We’re interested in...looking at what teaching means, and how new technologies change the activities in teaching. How much time are you spending correcting people, teaching them technologies? Saying, ‘no, not that button. Press this button.’ And how much time are you spending interacting with the students on ideas?”

Technology as Trojan Mouse

Conference speakers pointed out that eLearning can produce returns on investment outside of the purely financial sphere by fostering innovation even in out-of-the-way pockets of the campus. “Technology is the Trojan mouse,” says Scott Macklin, who described working on technology projects that spawned trained staff who then teamed with other campus groups, even forging links with the K-12 community. “These are [outcomes] that we can then capture as return on investment,” he said.

But sometimes return on investment has to be assumed. Berkeley’s McCready cited Digital California, Governor Gray Davis’s project to link all state K-12 schools to the Internet. “This was a really very important thing to do.... And there is no way that beforehand he’s going to understand what the return on investment is. I mean this has to be done essentially on an understanding of what technology can do with some intelligent guesses...then making a decision and taking a leadership role.

Whither Virtual Universities?

If the performance pressure faced by many campus eLearning programs is high, the virtual university movement has gone through even harsher times, with many ventures swept away in the dot-com meltdown. Yet some programs are thriving. UMass Online, a two-year-old non-profit tied into the University of Massachusetts system, is currently growing enrollments at 58 percent per year. Last year it had revenues of $6.1 million with projected revenue growth of 50 percent a year.

Jack Wilson, chief executive officer of UMass Online, said one of the factors in the success of the program has been its modest investment in content relative to faculty, technology, and marketing. “Content has always been one of the smallest pieces in the value chain,” says Wilson. “That’s not to say it’s not important.... It’s just that it’s the smallest piece in the value chain because it’s basically the same everywhere you go.”

Instead, investment in branding, teachers, and technology are far more critical, according to Wilson, who worries that “a lot of our distance learning programs attempt to just push the back wall of the lecture hall out further” via video-conferencing, streaming video, or satellite transmission. Rather, distance learning must adopt a “distributed collaborative model” where there are many types of interactions between students, research teams, faculty, and resource centers.

What’s more, the system needs to focus more on the investment made by the students themselves. “Today we organize ourselves according to a model in which a faculty member g'es in and works very, very hard while the students rest,” says Wilson. “What we really need to do is organize ourselves so that the students are working very hard, while the faculty members can rest. Its as simple as that...if the students aren’t doing the work, learning is not occurring.”

Ultimately, the success of eLearning will turn on the commitment of the entire higher education community, not on the tools of the trade, educators said. Faced with a skeptic who claimed he had not seen a significant impact eLearning in the last five years, Diane Laurillard said: “The assumption is that somehow the mere application of technology changes something. Everything that I’ve been saying shows how difficult it is to use the technology and exploit it well enough to make that shift, to do something really magical and different for the student.

"It’s like saying something like I’ve been using books for five years and I don’t see that the students are any different from when I was using lectures or something like that. It’s not the medium that makes the difference, it’s the particular way in which you use it."

Spotlight on Industry: The Future of Course Management Systems

"It takes a lot more than a course management system to drive a successful online program." That was diplomatic response of eCollege chairman Oakleigh Thorne when asked to assess the future of course management systems during a panel discussion with three of his competitors at the Syllabus2002 conference last month.

Thorne was flanked on the panel by Matthew Pittinsky, chairman of Blackboard; Barbara Ross, chief operating officer of WebCT; and Phil Long, senior strategist for academic computing at MIT, who was representing the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI)

"I think we're really on the verge of the third-generation of course management systems," he said, "after a first generation of stand-alone applications like grade books and a second generation of enterprise systems that featured portals with interfaces to other applications on campus.

Looking ahead, Thorne believes "a third generation will start to emerge this year, characterized by moves into Web services and distributed applications, with customizable subsystems."

Operating System for Education

Matthew Pittinsky, chief executive officer of Blackboard Inc., says course management systems will mature to become "the operating system for education." eLearning platforms "... are going to be the underlying technology with which you not only experience grade books and chat tools and quizzing tools, but lots of specialized learning applications" like biology textbooks on dissection or pedagogically driven approaches to assessment.

Barbara Ross, chief operating officer of Web CT, also believes integration is the development to watch. "We know that 72 percent of our customers either have or plan to integrate their course management system with their backend systems," she said. Increasingly integration with library systems will occur, particularly for managing content and digital rights, she predicts. Such integration will lead to K-20 information management. "We see more and more of our states’ systems working from kindergarten to death, and tying in even their library system."

Phil Long from MIT aid that given the integration under way it will be increasingly important to consider the architecture underlying the systems. "The one thing that we know for sure is that there will be a constant change in each of these particular software areas," he said. "Therefore, it becomes increasingly important to figure out how to build between those particular enterprise systems and the learning environments that are dependent and feed them so that the change can be managed (and) we can continue to get good and productive development going on...."

A Call to Arms on Digital Copyright

Law professor Lawrence Lessig used the Syllabus2002 conference to encourage educators to join the battle brewing between content creators and distributors who he believes are improperly extending controls over copyrighted material in the digital age.

In an often impassioned keynote speech, the Stanford professor, who will argue the case against extending the terms of copyright protection before the U.S. Supreme Court this fall, said the academic community's silence on the issue has "produced a struggle in Washington that is doing nothing more than closing off the potential for knowledge and creativity that technologists gave us 10 years ago."

Lessig argued that since the copyright laws were enacted, copyright holders have been permitted to gradually extend their hold over intellectual property in the name of protection against newer creative forms of distribution. "We always build on the past," he said. "The past always tries to protect itself against the new creativity. We define ourselves by the extent to which we assure the past d'es not have this power. Yet we are increasingly incapable of guaranteeing the future its freedom from the past."

Time and again, copyright holders, from makers of piano rolls to broadcast television programming, have argued their industries were at risk from newer distribution technologies, such as sheet music and cable television. In most instances, a compromise has been struck that allowed the newer technologies to go forward in exchange for compulsory licensing fees to compensate the copyright holder.

Today, such compromises are not even being considered, Lessig argued. In the recent Napster case, for instance, Napster claimed it possessed a technology that could guarantee that 98 percent of its music transfers or downloads were legal. But the court upheld the injunction against the company, saying Napster’s protection was not good enough.

"Now would there have been a copying machine if the Xerox Corp. had to promise that 100 percent of the copies made on a copying machine were legal? Would there have been a VCR if the VCR had to guarantee there were zero non-infringing uses? I mean obviously the past would not have been allowed if this had been the standard that governs new technology. Yet this is the standard now."

Lessig said the same inflation of copyright had infected the law of patents, an area higher education is particularly vulnerable. "Where before the process of innovating was an open process where people shared their ideas freely with each other, increasingly lawyers are saying 'you’re not permitted to share your paper with so and so before we’ve filed the following patent application,' or 'don’t talk to so and so about these ideas because that might jeopardize our ability to get works patent.'"

"We've never lived in a time where creativity has been more subject to control," he told the conference. "When you add the extension of copyright term to the expansion in copyright scope to the concentration in the control of media that we’ve seen just now, this means that we have never seen a time when fewer actors are able to control more of the creative process than now."

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