Another e–learning wash–out

20 03 2006

Writing about web page http://education.guardian.co.uk/elearning/story/0,,1735137,00.html

Report in today’s Guardian on another woeful e-learning venture gone pear-shaped:

An e-learning venture by Oxford University, with Yale and Stanford in the US, has folded after failing to attract enough students. A joint announcement was slipped out quietly by the three universities, which face an embarrassing blow to their prestige. The failure follows the collapse of a series of American university ventures and the £62m debacle of the UK’s e-University. Oxford today declined to disclose how much money it lost on the AllLearn project, launched in the heady days of the dotcom boom in 2001. By June 2005, AllLearn had incurred a deficit of $783,410, with a revenue of $2.5m and expenses totalling $3.28m, according to the London-based Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, which monitors international developments in distance learning. In a statement on the AllLearn website, S Kristin Kim, president of the company, said it had offered 110 online courses from Oxford, Stanford, and Yale universities to more than 10,000 participants from 70 countries during the past five years. “As we looked to the future, the cost of offering top-quality enrichment courses at affordable prices was not sustainable over time.”

“Affordable prices” certainly captures it. It looks like the average cost was $250 per participant.

Sounds like a bit of a weakness in the business plan. But how could these three institutions get it quite so wrong?

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One response

23 03 2006
Robert O'Toole

I have to admit to being involved, unwillingly, in the early days of this venture. The unanswered questions always were:

Considering that Oxford earns so much money from students actually visiting its facilities, what possible reason could there be for sinking money into developing entirely online courses? The successful online courses usually follow the “blended” approach, with some face-to-face teaching, such as in summer schools.
A key motivation for developing online courses is that the process may encourage the development and maintanance of quality in the traditional face-to-face courses on which they are based. But entirely online distance learning courses are just so far in every resepect from traditional courses, that they lose that vital connection and role.

After considerable hype (generated by a few loud bull**** individuals), the idea of the Alliance (precursor to AllLearn) was in reality quietly ditched as pointless. By this point however, the tech-business train was unstoppable, and had to be seen to have produced some kind of result.

What is left from this experience? The claim, as with the UKEU, is that it was worth it just as a “learning experience” for the instutions involved. Note that the same person was behind the hype for both the Alliance and the UKEU, and is now making a living sharing the lessons learned from these errors.

Message: Don’t believe the hype.

Of course there is a lot more to e-learning than this. The key is to see it as a development of existing business models and practices.

Paul – i’d be interested to hear your opinions on the relationship between e-learning and quality assurance. I think there has always been a hidden agenda. Do you deal with this in your book?

COMMENT:

I should add that these figures “$783,410, with a revenue of $2.5m and expenses totalling $3.28m” are in e-learning terms small. I’ve known of certain other projects that would have judged such a small loss as a success. I infer from this that the real reason for pulling the plug was that further development just wasn’t in the interests of the member universities, that is to say, the venture didn’t support and enhance their core business.

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