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Last Updated: Friday, 6 February, 2004, 15:13 GMT
E-learning grows in and out of university
By Angela Harrison
BBC News Online education staff

students using pcs
Online learning offers flexibility
More and more students are working online as part of their degree, according to experts.

There has been much talk of a coming revolution in higher education caused by electronic media and the ability of students to study whole courses from a distance.

But it seems the greater change might be for students studying in university but with greater use of online technology.

The government is committed to "embedding e-learning" in the next 10 years.

Extending campuses

It asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) to do this and the organisation is drawing up a strategy.

The body has just finished consulting on its plans. The results are due in the spring, but early indications are that universities are most keen on developing the use of e-learning on existing courses.

Liz Beatty, Hefce's director of learning and teaching said: "It's not separating out e-learning from any other learning.

"It's become normal to have some kind of online connection with students.

"Where a campus starts and ends has been extended by e-learning.

"I think it (the future) is about integrating e-learning alongside everything else."

She thinks that as computers are becoming more mobile, the possibilities for making greater use of e-learning at university are growing.

student writing
Will conventional methods endure?
Pure online learning has been expanding in its own right and many universities offer a wide range of degrees, post-graduate and other qualifications online.

The University of Ulster's website directs would-be students to its online campus, which advertises 200 courses, from IT to healthcare.

The university offers courses to students at home and across the world.

The students can access libraries and e-journals online, they submit work online to deadlines and receive feedback from tutors in the same way.

The system worked well for GP Michael Scott from County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, who is studying for an MSc in primary care and general practice through Ulster University.

"Being full-time with other commitments, the distance-learning course allowed me to access the course work at a time of my own choosing, be it from 0700 to 0100," he said.

"It also allows me to save four to five hours' travel time by not having to make a regular round-trip from Fermanagh for tutorials."


As well as offering a wide range of courses electronically, the university is working on expanding the existing on-line modules for its "normal" degrees.

The university's Professor Clive Mulholland believes this will make courses more attractive to students who might need to work to pay their way through higher education.

"With top-up fees coming, students want to be as flexible as possible, so they can do paid work if they need to," he said.

The university began offering online degrees in 1999 and now has students from 46 countries around the world.

The project has helped the university break into the overseas market. Foreign students had been reluctant to travel to Northern Ireland.

The university's biggest course is in bio-medical science, which is typically taken by people working in medical laboratories.

The university is being turned inside out
Professor Clive Mulholland, Ulster University
"The students need Masters degrees to get promotion, but often work shifts or have family responsibilities which would make it hard to study in the traditional way so this is proving very popular, " said Professor Mulholland.

Ulster is one of the universities to team up with a new government-backed body which aims to bring in business for online courses. About five of its courses are available through the organisation.

UKeU was set up nearly a year ago, with 55m investment from the government to promote online courses at UK universities.

For the designated courses it markets, it offers extra support to students across the world in the form of telephone help-lines as well as online support.

UKeU's chief executive John Beaumont says the market is growing - but that there is still a great untapped area.

"There is a massive gap between supply and demand with higher education," he said.

"Much of the gap can't be filled by building more universities and employing more lecturers."

Mr Beaumont believes the failure of some earlier attempts at e-learning were not due to technology problems but to lack of student support or poor course content.

"People are starting to see that e-learning can be high quality and that there can be advantages in terms of cost and flexibility," he said.

Learning from a distance is nothing new. The University of London began running external courses in the middle of the 19th century.

The Open University offers many of its courses online or with online elements. Coursework can be submitted online.

For the foreign student enrolling on a course at a particular university the beauty is they can study exactly the same material and get the same degree as if they were studying on campus.

As Professor Mulholland says "the university is being turned inside out".

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