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This chapter is from the book

The Roots of E-Learning

In many ways, the success of more incremental approaches to the deployment of Internet technologies on campus should come as no surprise. A careful examination of the roots of the current boom in e-learning reveals that its growth lies in several long developing trends of American higher education, some of which have nothing to do with the Internet per se, and all of which were being addressed long before e-learning. It is these trends that are the true drivers of change and successful e-learning programs are those that are most connected to them. Indeed, four are identified and reinforced through the book, as follows.

  1. The renewed focus on pedagogy and the learner. With the explosive growth of higher education enrollments over the past few decades, a growing chorus of critics and reformers have argued for an increased focus on the quality of instruction. Although we are all familiar with the age-old debate about the primacy of research versus teaching in an institution's mission, the issue of quality instruction involves much more. Issues of faculty training, course evaluation, analysis of learning outcomes, and increased focus on the learner and learning styles are all part and parcel of an increased consciousness of the need to think about how instruction is delivered in higher education. Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that on many campuses, the primary support organizations for e-learning are the centers that were originally developed to focus on improving faculty teaching skills in general. The adoption of virtual learning environments has been largely driven by faculty who see the Internet as a solution to an instructional problem, not "technothusiasts" who simply enjoy the technology. Although some worry that the demands of e-learning are monopolizing the resources of instructional support teams, in reality it works both ways. Indeed, the very act of creating a course Web site is one that demonstrates thoughtfulness on the part of the faculty member as to how he or she is going to teach the course; this thoughtfulness typically leads to other nontechnology changes in a course's design.

  2. The movement of technology from the back office to the front office. Although higher education can rightfully lay claim to a number of critical information technology breakthroughs, including the Internet, conventional wisdom argues that it generally lags the private sector in the implementation of these technologies. For example, colleges and universities took much longer than their corporate counterparts to adopt integrated commercial systems for managing back office operations such as student records, finance, and human resources. This trend remained true as corporations transformed their corporate Web sites from brochures to vehicles for doing business. Only recently have universities begun to accept applications, donations, course registrations, and the like over the Web. Most recently, corporate America has recognized the need for technology to transform the front office—those services that face the consumer of the business—investing in systems that improve activities such as support, service, customer relationships, and the like. Only recently has higher education begun to think of its student-centric units in quite the same way, and e-learning is a core component of this trend. Today's student expects a technology-supported experience from application to registration to donation. Campuses are scrambling to deploy campus Web portals that offer everything from health center scheduling to registration for season tickets to football games. Because the core daily activity of a student is teaching and learning, creating a baseline Web environment for instruction has become the core of a broader front office expansion of technology.

  3. The high-stakes search for new funding sources. Certainly a significant context for the growth of e-learning is money—more specifically, the need to tap new financial sources. For some institutions, financial opportunity has been the primary public rationale given for the creation of for-profit subsidiaries that have initial public offering (IPO) potential. For others, it is less stated but no less important. At a time when state funding is decreasing, tuition rates have begun to max out, and the cost of doing business only increases, colleges and universities have become increasingly entrepreneurial in their sources of new revenue streams. The growth of extension programs, executive education programs, certificate programs, travel programs, and other branches of the traditional curriculum all serve to educate broader audiences, but with the added benefit of doing so with much higher profit margins than traditional undergraduate education provides.

  4. The pressure and opportunity to serve new enrollments and markets. Perhaps the most frequently mentioned context for the sudden rise in postsecondary e-learning is the transition of America into a knowledge economy. More than ever, human capital is the key asset of corporations and the primary determinate of our career potential and livelihood. More people are seeking advanced education more frequently in their lives than ever before. As a result, states such as Utah estimate a doubling of their public institution enrollments over the next 10 years. The strain is particularly acute in areas such as education, nursing, information technology, and other professional disciplines that face workforce shortages. One implication is the rise of the for-profit segment of higher education that offers a focused, cost-effective degree "product" for the market. Higher education has experience working with corporate America as an originator of research and development, but the demands of playing a similar role as the ongoing developer of professional capacity are new and touch the core activity of the campus. As a result, it is quite political and the uncertainty facing university decision makers cannot be overstated. However, in this uncertainty, and with the revenue potential mentioned earlier in mind, the new markets placing demands on higher education offer fertile ground for the development of e-learning programs that can deliver courses to broader audiences, free of the limitations of geography and time.

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