In truth, 1999 is a bit late to situate e-learning; it had certainly been in use as a term for some time, but it was with the rise of the web, and the practice of adding the prefix “e” to everything, that saw it come to prominence. By 1999 the components of e-learning that we have seen in the preceding chapters were all in place. The web browser provided an easy to use, common interface; CMC tools and expertise had developed to the stage where online tuition was feasible in all disciplines; a range of pedagogies clustering around constructivism established a theoretical framework for implementation; and tools such as wikis fostered innovation and collaboration. At the turn of the century, e-learning was poised to become part of the mainstream of higher education. How this promise played out over the ensuing decade is one of the themes of the following chapters, and it is a tale of both success and of missed opportunity.
There was much angst about the implications of e-learning for higher education at the end of the 1990s. Noam (1995) predicted a “dim future” for universities, arguing that “the ultimate providers of an electronic curriculum will not be universities (they will merely break the ice) but rather commercial firms. Textbook publishers will establish sophisticated electronic courses taught by the most effective and prestigious lecturers” (p. 250). Given the rise of MOOC and the ventures into course offerings from publishers such as Pearson, this prediction now, in 2019, seems quite prescient.
In a series of articles under the heading “Digital Diploma Mills,” Noble (1998) set out a number of objections to e-learning. Noble saw technology as a vehicle for the commercialization of higher education, and the undermining of the autonomy of academics:
What is driving this headlong rush to implement new technology with so little regard for deliberation of the pedagogical and economic costs and at the risk of student and faculty alienation and opposition? A short answer might be the fear of getting left behind, the incessant pressures of “progress”. But there is more to it. For the universities are not simply undergoing a technological transformation. Beneath that change, and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education. For here as elsewhere technology is but a vehicle and a disarming disguise. (p. 356)
This could have been equally written in 2012 around the time of the rush to invest in MOOC. Thus, critical approaches to ed tech are not new, and just as the approaches tend to be reinvented, so do the concerns and issues. However, it was also true that much of the criticism of e-learning revealed a conceit regarding the superiority of face-to-face education over distance learning, and an assumption that face-to-face is the only valid form of education. For instance, Noble (1998) reported that “students want the genuine face-to-face education they paid for not a cyber–counterfeit” (p. 360). The focus of such criticisms was often on the life of the academic and overlooked the social function of distance, open, and flexible learning options. Notably, much of this criticism came from the United States, which is one of the few major countries not to have a national open university, and thus the attitude towards distance learning tends to be informed by low-quality correspondence education. This also drastically over-romanticized the quality of face-to-face education, prompting McDonald (2002) to ask, “Is as good as face-to-face as good as it gets?” (p. 10).
In a typical academic fashion, there was much debate around the definition of e-learning, and it was obligatory for one person at every conference to say in a rather self-satisfied manner “there’s already an e in learning,” suggesting that a new term was unnecessary. But it was a useful term, as it highlighted the profile of online components and the exploration of accompanying pedagogies. At the time, e-learning broadly covered any use of electronic media in learning, but gradually the interpretation came to focus more on online delivery. Online education, web-based instruction, networked learning — all of these terms were widely used to mean the same thing: education that was delivered in some respect through the Internet. This also saw the rise of a term that is still in use, that of blended learning. This term had various interpretations, with Driscoll (2002, p. 1) identifying four main forms: a blend of different forms of media or technology; of pedagogical approaches; of technology and face-to-face delivery; and, of technology with job tasks. Given the manner in which even students in primarily face-to-face settings employ Wikipedia and other online resources, it is difficult to imagine any higher education situation now which isn’t blended to an extent, whether formally or informally. The blending of face-to-face provision with online delivery has been one area of significant growth, and it has allowed many “traditional” universities to offer flexible learning opportunities.
In 1999, I was part of a team that developed the Open University’s (OU) first fully online undergraduate course — this one wasn’t in a wiki (Weller, 2000). In keeping with the spirit of the times, a group of us were excited about the possibility of the Internet for education, and particularly for distance education. We wanted to explore what it would be like to deliver a course entirely online — no printed units, no accompanying material, video or audio cassettes, or face-to-face tutorials. This may sound like standard fare now, but it was radical in 1999, and frequently dismissed. It transpired that lots of people wanted to learn this way and had been waiting for an opportunity. The success of this course (some 12,000 students) almost overwhelmed the OU’s systems and necessitated the invention of a whole new set of digital infrastructures and procedures to cope. More significantly, its success effectively ended the argument about e-learning and its potential for distance education at the OU, and after this good showing, it became an intrinsic part of the strategic direction.
This example is significant because it reveals that these students were keen to study this way and saw it as liberating, whereas most academics were reticent about its use, and frequently hid this reluctance behind concerns about students. It also illustrates one of the themes of this book, the historical amnesia prevalent in ed tech — online, large-scale courses weren’t invented in 2012 with the arrival of MOOC. When BBC News breathlessly reports that the University of London is going to offer a degree online in 2018 (Coughlan, 2018), it illustrates that e-learning still has the ability to appear as something new.
One of the interesting aspects of e-learning was the consideration of costs. As we saw earlier, the idea of an infinite lecture hall gained much interest, because as Noam (1995) put it, “a curriculum, once created, could be offered electronically not just to hundreds of students nearby but to tens of thousands around the world” (p. 249). However, this idea, which simultaneously caused dismay amongst academics and delight amongst those who fund education, failed to fully appreciate the costs involved in education and, in particular, the difference between fixed and variable costs in course production and delivery. Traditional (pre-Internet) distance education models have high fixed costs but relatively low variable costs (Weller, 2004). The initial production cost is high, but then the price per student is relatively low. For instance, bespoke printed units or software simulations are costly to produce, taking time and requiring the input of a range of experts. However, once made, these components are relatively cheap to reproduce, so the costs do not increase greatly as the number of students increases. This model requires a significant number of students to reach a break-even point and is well-suited to large population courses which are presented over several years without much alteration. Variable costs, on the other hand, are those that increase linearly with the number of students. For example, the payment of part-time tutors does not achieve economies of scale — the larger the population, of a course, the greater the number of tutors required.
In an e-learning course, CMC will usually form a substantial component, particularly if, as we have seen, a constructivist approach is adopted, which promotes dialogue, collaboration, and student guidance. This requires tutors and moderators to successfully implement the course. In the CMC chapter of his book, the research of e-learning expert Tony Bates (1995) revealed that the employment of these tutors and moderators becomes the main costs involved. Such a course will, therefore, entail a high variable cost component.
The arrival of e-learning, then, did not present a drastic reduction in the costs of higher education, although it did indicate a shift in the allocation of those resources in some cases. It was possible, although not always realized, to spend less in production, because digital resources were now replacing physical ones, and there was a greater potential for reuse. However, there is often a subsequent increase in expenditure during the presentation of a course, because of these increased support costs and a more rapid updating cycle. The low cost of e-learning myth keeps reoccurring, however, and was a motivation for much of the investment in MOOC. It came as no surprise to those with any history in e-learning that the large returns on investment envisaged did not come to pass.
E-learning set the framework for the next decade of ed tech. This period might be seen as the golden age of e-learning in some respects, as it was now in a position to move from the nascent, experimental stage, into mainstream, large-scale adoption.