At the Alliance Universities Dinner on 29/03/2010 we were addressed by Dame Lynne Brindley, the chief executive of the British Library and head of the HEFCE Online Learning Task Force (see news release http://www.hefce.ac.uk/news/hefce/2009/taskforce.htm and site http://www.hefce.ac.uk/Learning/enhance/taskforce/). She was refreshingly sceptical about some of the underlying assumptions (is Britain a world leader in online learning; the Australians certainly have a view). For the most part she simply presented the remit of the Task Force. She also suggested there might be a £10M funding call to be announced on completion of the Task Force’s work in the autumn.
We observed that the motivations behind this initiative appear disconcertingly similar to those that drove the UK eUniversity. There is an assumption that online learning is (or opens up) a terra nullius: a space awaiting colonisation or exploitation, within which there will be competition for domination, and that the “brand values” of UK HE are somehow an enabler of this colonisation: a USP. Definitions of online learning are still used quite fluidly and there is an implicit underlying transmission/consumption model of learning.
Each dining table was provided with a conversation menu to accompany the excellent dinner. Our table was asked to consider what changes were needed to ensure students were able to benefit from online learning. We were a fairly sceptical lot. We questioned why there was an assumption that students were NOT already benefiting. Indeed each diner was able to offer examples of positive benefits of online learning already being used at their institution. We spent some time considering the brand values of UK HE (scepticism, empiricism, willingness to challenge received wisdoms, low power-distance within the academy, respect for tradition, pastoral concern for learners) and questioned whether these very brand values did not militate against a transmission model of education, regardless of the mode of engagement. We were not Luddites; all the people at our table could be classified as e-enthusiasts, but we valued human-human contact and collaboration through multiple channels. We explored the assertion that education was about relationships and that learning was a factor of identity and community. We were uncertain how many meaningful learning relationships could be sustained but felt that, again, regardless of the mode of engagement (online, offline, distance or face-to-face) there might be some sustainable ratio of students to teachers and that to think this could be changed by deploying various technologies was at least open to challenge.