Log on to www.cardean.edu from anywhere in the world, and you can enrol in a business, management or accounting course from a university partnered by a consortium of prestigious institutions from Stanford to the London School of Economics. In the course of your studies, you will not have to leave your desk – because all of Cardean University’s courses are fully online. This is the most respectable-looking of a new breed of virtual universities, whose prospectuses and student bodies are modest so far, but whose potential as multinational purveyors of learning is mind-boggling. Will we soon all be taking our degrees on the web? And does this mean that, 24 centuries after Plato’s Academy, the days of the physical campus are numbered?
The 1990s witnessed plenty of talk and relatively little action, both about the coming of “virtual learning” and about the export of educational services. Many existing higher education institutions started to use electronic media to support their programmes, without changing their underlying structure. Truly virtual courses tended to be experimental, small scale or of dubious quality.
But representatives of OECD governments meeting with e-learning experts in Tokyo recently noted that in the past two years virtual learning has started to take off. It seems that three trends are converging to bring a global virtual education economy closer to reality.
First, the technical possibilities of the Internet and related technologies now make it possible to deliver high quality courses, largely or even entirely, online. Education observers have been impressed by the very high quality of the platform created by Cardean, albeit at enormous cost.
Second, radical changes in who participates in higher education, and why, have created pressure for equally radical change in what is provided, and how. Gone are the days when students were primarily a minority of the population in their late teens and early 20s, studying full-time for bachelor degrees. Universities in many countries have expanded part-time study, created new modes of off-site learning, often in partnership with business, and introduced more flexible forms of credit transfer. Yet existing universities still tend to be oriented around their long-established features: the campus, the faculty, the term or semester, the annual admission of a fresh batch of young undergraduates. The founding of entirely new institutions without recognisable campuses could herald a more fundamental shake-up.
Third, some countries are belatedly realising that international trade in educational services could become a significant force. The biggest component of such trade to date has been study overseas; now e-learning opens up new prospects of consumers who stay in their own countries and import a wide range of services from foreign suppliers. The US has placed the removal of trade restrictions in education on the table in the GATS negotiations on liberalisation of trade in services.
This intersection of technological, educational and trading developments is still a long way from creating a serious threat to national education systems, even if each element of the mix is growing fast. Take e-learning. A survey last year found that 57% of Canadian universities already offer online courses, with 3 000 offered in total. In other countries only a minority do, but growth is rapid: only one in four Dutch universities currently provide electronic learning environments, but 90% say they have plans to do so.
The physical link between campus and student is already being broken. One in seven students enrolled at Australian universities are described as “external”: attendance is incidental or voluntary. On the trade front, education is at least the fifth largest sector of internationally traded service in the US, yet most trade in educational services still involves physical travel by foreign students, while most e-learning remains domestic. The multinational virtual university remains a dream, of which Cardean is so far only a prototype.
Many national government representatives meeting in Tokyo were nevertheless worried about what lies ahead. The US is well positioned to export educational services – its student-testing industry, for example, has already become a serious international business – and there is little prospect of a threat to its own domestic provision from outside. But smaller countries fear cultural domination and loss of control over a service that governments regard as a crucial tool in influencing how their societies develop. Even the US has agreed that primary and secondary education will be off limits in GATS, but some countries worry too about foreign intrusion into degree or diploma courses at colleges and universities.
Looking ahead, several key issues would need to be resolved for exported e-learning to take off in a big way. Quality control and accreditation is crucial. Students need to know not just the intrinsic worth of the course they are buying, but also how it will be regarded, particularly by employers. Countries already accredit domestic institutions, and recognised national qualifications ensure that student learning is recognised and valued by others. All this becomes a lot harder when it comes to overseas providers, particularly those that have no physical presence in a country. International accreditation is in its infancy – one of the more prominent bodies with this mission, the Global Alliance for Transnational Education, has so far recognised only four institutions.
Another closely-related issue is protectionism. The GATS negotiations will need to confront a range of measures taken by countries to keep out education imports, including direct legislation and policy, refusal to recognise foreign credentials, telecommunications laws, and restrictions on movement of people. This means confronting a fundamental motivation: the desire to keep control of one’s own education system.
Governments need to become clearer about exactly what public objectives they wish to retain for education systems, and recognise the huge scope for private services to be provided beyond this, whether from home or foreign suppliers.
A basic question about e-learning has to be answered before it can compete seriously with face-to-face study. Is it good value for money? Initially it was assumed that teaching thousands of people via intelligent software was bound to bring huge savings over using real teachers in classrooms. Today, it is widely recognised that study can only be effective if it includes some level of human interaction – whether by email or at least some direct contact between student and teacher. Moreover, the fixed cost of setting up a really high quality e-learning platform can be huge – Cardean’s set-up costs were in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Therefore, the winners will be those who can sell services on a truly global scale. The need initially to tap premium revenue sources with courses such as MBAs and corporate management training may delay the day that virtual universities start to compete seriously with other provision for undergraduates.
Finally, issues of intellectual property are coming ever more to the fore. When in April 2001, MIT announced that it will be putting all of its course materials on the Internet, its stated aim was to counter a trend towards privatising knowledge. It also said that the materials were not in themselves courses; but those who do try to sell courses online may find it hard to protect their products from some forms of piracy. At best, this may help keep out products that simply dump materials on students without giving individualised support. But at worst it could limit the willingness of leading academics to sell their wisdom to online providers, fearing that endless duplication might devalue the currency of their own intellectual contribution, as well as that of the prestigious institutions where they teach. The OECD’s Tokyo meeting heard important warnings against “cyperbole”: the tendency to exaggerate the degree to which electronic communications will change the world. E-learning is as far today from challenging campus education as educational imports are from threatening the far greater volume of within-border learning. Yet there is no doubt that both these phenomena exist and are growing rapidly. Education ministers are keen to keep a close eye on them: meeting in Paris earlier this year, they requested that the OECD monitor developments and report back. The eyes of many governments will be watching this space, whether with excitement or with trepidation. Cyperbole may have its merits: at least the issue is now seriously on the agenda.
• See also “At your service: Trade in the global economy”, by J. Nielson, p. 47.
• E-learning, the Partnership Challenge, OECD, 2001; order it at http://www.oecd.org/bookshop/
• Knowledge Management in the Learning Society, OECD, 2000.
• Cities and Regions in the New Learning Economy, OECD, 2001.
©OECD Observer No 229, November 2001