The impact of ICT on tertiary education advances and promises

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The impact of ICT on tertiary education advances and promises

    The impact of ICT on tertiary education :

    advances and promises

    Kurt Larsen and Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin

    Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) *Directorate for Education / Centre for Educational Research and Innovation


    OECD/NSF/U. Michigan Conference

    ―Advancing Knowledge and the Knowledge Economy‖

    10-11 January 2005

    Washington DC

    ABSTRACT: The promises of e-learning for transforming tertiary education and thereby advancing the knowledge economy have rested on three arguments: E-learning could expand and widen access to tertiary education and training; improve the quality of education; and reduce its cost. The paper evaluates these three promises with the sparse existing data and evidence and concludes that the reality has not been up to the promises so far in terms of pedagogic innovation, while it has already probably significantly improved the overall learning (and teaching) experience. Reflecting on the ways that would help develop e-learning further, it then identifies a few challenges and highlights open educational resource initiatives as an example of way forward. The first section of the paper recalls some of the promises of e-learning; the second compares these promises and the real achievements to date and suggests that e-learning could be at an early stage of its innovation cycle; the third section highlights the challenges for a further and more radically innovative development of e-learning.

     * E-mail:;; 2 rue André Pascal 75775 Paris Cedex 16



    Knowledge, innovation and Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have had strong repercussions on many economic sectors, e.g. the informatics and communication, finance, and transportation sectors (Foray, 2004; Boyer, 2002). What about education? The knowledge-based economy sets a new scene for education and new challenges and promises for the education sector. Firstly, education is a prerequisite of the knowledge-based economy: the production and use of new knowledge both require a more (lifelong) educated population and workforce. Secondly, ICTs are a very powerful tool for diffusing knowledge and information, a fundamental aspect of the education process: in that sense, they can play a pedagogic role that could in principle complement (or even compete with) the traditional practices of the education sector. These are the two challenges for the education sector: continue to expand with the help (or under the pressure) of new forms of learning. Thirdly, ICTs sometimes induce innovations in the ways of doing things: for example, navigation does not involve the same cognitive processes since the Global Positioning System (GPS) was invented (e.g. Hutchins, 1995); scientific research in many fields has also been revolutionised by the new possibilities offered by ICTs, from digitisation of information to new recording, simulation and data processing possibilities (Atkins and al., 2003). Could ICTs similarly revolutionise education, especially as education deals directly with the codification and transmission of knowledge and information two activities which power has been decupled

    by the ICT revolution?

    The education sector has so far been characterised by rather slow progress in terms of innovation development which impact on teaching activities. Educational research and development does not play a strong role as a factor of enabling the direct production of systematic knowledge which translates into ―programmes that works‖ in the classroom or lecture hall (OECD, 2003). As a matter of fact, education is not a field that lends itself easily to experimentation, partly because experimental approaches in education are often impossible to describe in precisely enough to be sure that they are really being replicated (Nelson, 2000). There is little codified knowledge in the realm of education and only weak developed mechanisms whereby communities of faculty collectively can capture and benefit from the discoveries made by their colleagues. Moreover, learning typically depends on other learning inputs than those received in the class or formal education process: the success of learning depends on many social and family aspects that are actually beyond the control of educators.

    Information and communication technologies potentially offer increased possibilities for codification of knowledge about teaching and for innovation in teaching activities through being able to deliver learning and cognitive activities anywhere at any time. Learning at a distance can furthermore be more learner-centred, self-paced, and problem solving-based than face-to-face teaching. It is also true, however, that many learning activities cannot be coordinated by virtual means only. The emulation and spontaneity generated by physical presence and social groupings often remain crucial. Likewise, face-to-face exchanges are important when they enable other forms of sensory perception to be stimulated apart from these used within the framework of electronic interaction. However, the influence of distance


    and time is waning now that the technological capacity is available for knowledge-sharing, remote access and teamwork, and organising and coordinating tasks over wide areas (OECD, 2004a).

    Focusing on tertiary education, this paper examines the promises of ICTs in the education sector, first as a way to better participate in the advancement of the knowledge economy, second as a way to introduce innovations. Leaving aside the impact of ICTs on the research or e-science performed by tertiary education institutions (see Atkins and al., 2003; David, 2004), we concentrate on e-learning, broadly understood as the use of ICTs to enhance or support learning and teaching in (tertiary) education. E-learning is thus a generic term referring to different uses and intensities of uses of ICTs, from wholly online education to campus-based education through other forms of distance education supplemented with ICTs in some way. The supplementary model would encompass activities ranging from the most basic use of ICTs (e.g. use of PCs for word processing of assignments) through to more advanced adoption (e.g. specialist disciplinary software, handheld devices, learning management systems etc.). However, we keep a presiding interest in more advanced applications including some use of online facilities.

    Drawing on the scarce existing evidence, including a recent survey on e-learning in post-secondary institutions carried out by the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI), it shows that e-learning has not yet lived up to its promises, which were overstated in the hype of the new economy. ICT have nonetheless had a real impact on the education sector, inducing a quiet rather than radical revolution. Finally, it shows some possible directions to further stimulate its development. The remainder of the paper is organized as follows: the first section recalls some of the promises of e-learning; the second compares these promises and the real achievements to date and suggests that e-learning could be at an early stage of its adoption cycle; the third section highlights the challenges for a further development of e-learning and shows what directions might be the most promising for its further development.

I. Advancing knowledge and the (knowledge) economy: the

    promises of e-learning

    The emergence of ICTs represents high promises for the tertiary education sector (and, more broadly, the post-secondary education sector if one takes into account their impact on non-formal education). ICTs could indeed play a role on three fundamental aspects of education policy: access, quality and cost. ICTs could possibly advance knowledge by expanding and widening access to education, by improving the quality of education and reducing its cost. All this would build more capacity for the advancement of knowledge economies. This section summarises the main arguments backing the promises.

E-learning is a promising tool for expanding and widening access to tertiary education.

    Because they relax space and time constraints, ICTs can allow new people to participate in tertiary education by increasing the flexibility of participation compared to the traditional face-to-face model: working students and adults, people living in remote areas (e.g. rural), non-mobile students and even foreign students could now more easily participate in education. Thanks to ICT, learners can indeed study where and/or when they have time to do sorather

    than where and/or when classes are planned. While traditional correspondence-based distance learning has long played this role, ICT have enhanced traditional distance education enabled


    the rise of a continuum of practices between fully campus-based education and fully distance education.

    More specifically, fully online learning can allow large numbers of students to access education. The constraints of the face-to-face learning experience, that is, the size of the rooms and buildings and the students/teacher ratio, represents another form of relaxation of space constraints. ICTs indeed allow a very cheap cost of reproduction and communication of a lesson, via different means like the digital recording and its (ulterior or simultaneous) diffusion on TV, radio or the Internet. The learning process or content can also be codified, and at least some parts be standardised in learning objects, for example a multimedia software, that can in principle be used by millions of learners, either in a synchronous or asynchronous way. Although both forms might induce some loss in terms of teachers-learners interactivity compared to face to face teaching, they can reach a scale of participation that would be unfeasible via face-to-face learning.

    When the needs are huge, fully online learning can be crucial and possibly the only realistic means to increase and widen rapidly access to tertiary education. Some developing countries have huge cohorts of young people and too small an academic workforce to meet their large unmet demand: given training new teachers would take too much time, notwithstanding resources, e-learning might represent for many potential students and learners the only chance to study (rather than an alternative to full face-to-face learning) (World Bank, 2003).

E-learning can also be seen as a promising way for improving the quality of tertiary education

    and the effectiveness of learning. These promises can be derived from different characteristics of ICTs: the increased flexibility of the learning experience it can give to students; the enhanced access to information resources for more students; the potential to drive innovative and effective ways of learning and/or teaching, including learning tools, easier use of multimedia or simulation tools; finally, the possibility to diffuse these innovations at very low marginal cost among the teachers and learners.

    Distance E-learning has not only the virtue to be inclusive for students that cannot participate in tertiary education because of time, space or capacity constraints, as it was shown above. It can also in principle offer to students more personalised ways of learning than collective face-to-face learning, even in small groups. Although learning is often personalised to some extent in higher education through the modularity of paths, ICTs allow institutions to give students to choose a wider variety of learning paths than in non-ICT supplemented institutions not

    the least because of the administrative burden this would represent in large institutions. This means that students can experiment learning paths that best suit them. Moreover, e-learning can potentially allow students to take courses from several institutions, e.g. some campus-based and others fully online. This possible flexibility of individual curricula can be seen as an improvement of the overall student experience, regardless of pedagogical changes. In one word, e-learning could render education more learner-centred compared to the traditional model.

    A prestigious university generally has a sizeable library gathering tons of codified information and knowledge. One of the most visible impact of ICTs is to give easier and almost instant access to data and information in a digital form that allows manipulations that are sometimes not otherwise possible. The digitisation of information, from academic journals through to books and class notes, can change (and has changed) the life of students by giving them easy


    access to educational resources, information and knowledge, as well as new data processing possibilities.

    But e-learning could also lead to the enhancement of quality in tertiary education by leading to innovative pedagogic methods, new ways of learning and interacting, by the easy sharing of these new practices among learners and teachers communities, as well as by more transparency and easier comparisons and cross-fertilisation of teaching materials and methods.

    Finally, e-learning can be seen as a promising way to reduce the cost of tertiary education, which is critical for expanding and widening its access worldwide. It might thus represent new opportunities for students having difficulties with this traditional format. Although ICT investments are expensive, they can then generally be used at near-zero marginal cost. Where would this cost-efficiency come from: the replacement of expensive brick and mortar campuses by virtual campuses; the digitisation of library materials that would save the cost of keeping huge paper collections; the improvement of efficiency of institutional management; the automation of some of the traditional on-campus activities, including some teaching. II. Living up to the promises: a quiet rather than radical revolution

    Has e-learning (and especially online learning) lived up to the promises outlined in the previous section? It has to some extent. The reality of e-learning has never matched its most radical promises (Zemsky and Massy, 2004): while experiments are still underway, the initial stage of over-enthusiasm has ended when new economy bubble burst about 2002. In this respect, e-learning has followed the ups and down of the new economy and given rise to the same caveats as in other sectors: irrational beliefs about its market value, over-investment, over-capacity, and more announces than services really launched (Boyer, 2002). Like other activities, e-learning has not proven yet its ability to generate high profits or to replace the old economy of learning. However, interpreting this as a failure of e-learning would however over-simplify the reality and could be seen as ―throwing the baby with the bath water‖. While, perhaps unsurprisingly, e-learning has not led to the radical revolution in tertiary education that was sometimes prophesised, some of its forms are already pervasive in tertiary education and have already led to a quiet revolution. Its modesty should not lead to overlook it. This section gives a overiew of the limited evidence we have about the adoption of e-learning in tertiary education.

E-learning adoption

    The radical innovation view was that fully online learning would progressively supersede traditional face-to-face learning and represent a competitive threat for traditional tertiary educational institutions. To some extent, this belief has been a reason for the creation of new ventures and for established institutions to enter this new market: early adopters could indeed possibly gain a brand name and a serious competitive advantage in the new market. The reality is that, while sometimes successfully experimented, fully online learning has remained a marginal form of e-learning and often not even the ultimate goal or rationale for e-learning adoption. However, this does not mean that e-learning in other forms has not gained significant ground over the past decade in tertiary education: there is indeed some evidence of a noticeable growth of e-learning adoption both on demand and supply sides.


    One must bear in mind that e-learning encompasses a wide range of activities. Following the terminology used in the CERI survey (OECD, 2005), we distinguish between different levels of online learning adoption as follows, from the less to the most intensive form of e-learning:

    ; None or trivial online presence;

    ; Web supplemented: the Web is used but not for key ―active‖ elements of the

    programme (e.g. course outline and lecture notes online, use of email, links to external

    online resources) without any reduction in classroom time;

    ; Web dependent: Students are required to use the Internet for key ―active‖ elements of

    the programmee.g. online discussions, assessment, online project/ collaborative

    workbut without significant reduction in classroom time.

    ; Mixed mode: Students are required to participate in online activities, e.g. online

    discussions, assessment, online project/collaborative work, as part of course work,

    which replace part of face-to-face teaching/learning. Significant campus attendance


    ; Fully online: the vast bulk of the programme is delivered online with typically no (or

    not significant) campus attendance or through ―learning objects‖.

    What do we know about the major trends in the adoption of e-learning by institutions and students?

    First, e-learning has grown steadily in the last decade, at a relatively rapid pace, but from a very low starting pointand for some activities: from scratch. The lack of comprehensive

    data renders these trends difficult to document, but existing surveys all point to the same direction of an increasing activity/supply. A significant share of tertiary education institutions have developed some e-learning activities and strategies and believe in the critical importance of e-learning for their long term strategy. The 2003 Sloan Survey of Online Learning based on a sample of 1 000 US institutions shows that only 19% of US institutions have no advanced e-learning activities that is web dependent, mixed mode or fully online courses (Allen and Seman, 2003). The remainding 81% offer at least one course based on those advanced e-learning activities.

    Second, this growth of e-learning under all its forms should continue in the near future. There is indeed a converging evidence that tertiary education institutions consider as part of their future development strategy. In the Sloan survey, less than 20% of the US tertiary education institutions considered online education as not critical to their long term strategy. Similarly, data from the first international survey by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE) revealed that of the 42 UK institutions that responded (out of a total population of ca.106), 62% had developed or were developing an online learning strategy and most had done so since 2000 (OBHE, 2002). The second survey undertaken in 2004, 79% of the 122 universities from the Commonwealth countries responding to the survey had an institution-wide ―online learning‖ strategy as such or integrated into other strategies (46%) or under development (33%). Only 9% of these institutions had no e-learning strategy in place or under


    1. While these figures may reflect some self-selection in the respondents, development in 2004

    they unambiguously show a significant adoption or willingness to adopt some form of e-learning in the coming future. Although reflecting different levels of adoption of e-learning, all post-secondary institutions participating in the CERI survey on e-learning point to the same direction and report plans to increase their level of online delivery or to maintain their already high levels (OECD, 2005).

    Third, virtual universities are not likely to become the paradigm of tertiary education institutions. While it will most likely continue to grow, especially in distance institutions (see below), no evidence point towards a predominance of this form of e-learning in the near future in tertiary education. While the mixed mode of learning blending online and on-campus courses now clearly appears as a better candidate, institutions head towards the simultaneous offer of a variety of learning models. For understandable reasons, only few campus-based institutions (that is the bulk of post-secondary institutions) seem to aim at delivering a large share of their courses fully online or at becoming virtual. While some institutions participating in the CERI survey are at the avant-garde of e-learning, no campus-based institution predicted to deliver more than 10% of its total programmes fully online within three years (OECD, 2005). In the US, rather than offering only fully online courses (16%) or only mixed mode courses (10%), most institutions offer both fully online and blended courses; moreover, the majority (67%) of academic leaders believe that mixed mode and web dependent courses hold more promise than fully online, against only 14% having the opposite view (Allen and Seaman, 2003). This clearly reflects what we know about the main rationales for undertaking e-learning. The OBHE surveys show that on-campus enhancement of stndteaching and learning (1) and improved flexibility of delivery for on-campus students (2)

    are the two key rationales in institutional strategies of e-learning. Only 10% of the institutions considered the enhancement of distance learning as more important than on-campus enhancement. Interestingly, the level of importance granted to distance or fully online learning decreased between 2002 and 2004 among returning respondents. Distance or fully online learning remains the fifth most important rationale though (OBHE, 2002, p. 4).

    Finally, while a generalisation of the fully online model is not probable for tertiary education overall, at least in the medium run, this does not mean that fully online activities are not growing rapidly nor that the fully online learning model gains ground at distance education institutions (Bates, 1995). To our knowledge, no data on fully online enrolments are available for other countries than the United States. According to the 2003 Sloan survey, more than 1.6 million students (i.e. 11% of all US tertiary-level students) took at least one fully online course during the Fall 2002 and about one third of them, that is 578 000 students, took all their courses online. For example, the University of Phoenix, the largest university in the United States in terms of enrolments, has for example 60 000 of its 140 000 students online. The enrolments of fully online students in the United States were forecasted to increase by about 20% between 2002 and 2003, to 1.9 million studentsa projection that proved to be

    accurate according to the 2004 Sloan survey (Allen and Seaman, 2003, 2004). This growth rate, which is projected estimated at 25% for 2005 is much higher than the growth rate of total tertiary enrolments in the United States. From a low starting point, fully online learning is growing at a rapid pace, even if it is merely as a complement to face-to-face or mixed mode learning. Moreover, fully online learning is clearly very important for distance institutions. In the CERI survey, the institutions willing to embrace fully online learning to the greatest extent were all virtual/distance learning only institutions (or branches) (OECD, 2005).

     1 Some institutions had indeed reported no institution-wide strategy but some strategies developed by departments or faculties, or other strategies related to e-learning.


    In conclusion, e-learning seems to live up to its promises in terms of flexibility and possibly access. It is a growing activity that has for example significantly widened the participation in tertiary education of foreign students (OECD, 2004).

Does e-learning improve the quality of tertiary education?

    The real impact of e-learning on the quality of education is difficult to measure. E-learning largely embodies two promises: improving education thanks to improved learning and teaching facilities; inventing and sharing new ways of learning thanks to ICTs, that is a new specific pedagogic techniques. While the first promise is by and large becoming a reality, at least in OECD countries, the second appears further from reach.

    Viewed mainly as an enhancement of on-campus education, and thus matching the reality depicted in the previous section, there is some evidence that e-learning has improved the quality of the educational experience on both faculty and students sides (not to mention enhancement of administrative management). All institutions participating in the CERI survey reported a ―positive impact‖ of greater use of e-learning in all its forms on teaching and

    learning. The quality of education (with or without e-learning) is very difficult to measure, not the least because learning depends on students‘ motivation, abilities and other conditions (e.g. family, social, economic, health backgrounds) as much as on the quality of teaching. However, the reasons explaining this positive impact on quality largely lives up to the promises of e-learning to offer more flexibility of access to learners, better facilities and resources to study, and new opportunities thanks to the relaxation of space and time constraints. Basically, they do not correspond to a significant change in class pedagogy, but to a change in the overall learning experience. According to the institutions, the main drivers or components of this positive impact come from:

facilitated access to international faculty/peers, e.g. with the possibility of online lectures

    or joint classes with remote students;

     flexible access to materials and other resources, allowing students to revise a particular

    aspect of a class, giving more access flexibility to part-time students, or giving remote and

    easy access to the library materials;

     enhancement of face-to-face sessions, as the availability of archived lectures online frees

    up faculty time to focus on difficult points and application and because the introduction of

    e-learning has sometimes led to a debate on pedagogy;

     improved communication between faculty and students and increase of peer learning;

    This ―positive impact‖ on the overall learning experience is, alone, a significant achievement of e-learning, even though it has not radically transformed the learning and teaching processes.

    The quality of fully online learning is a more controversial question, possibly because online learning was once viewed as possibly become of higher quality than on-campus education (possibly including e-learning as already mentioned). Comparing the quality (or the beliefs about the quality) of fully online learning against traditional distance learning, traditional face-to-face learning or other mixed modes of e-learning might not yield the same results: fully online learning is indeed more readily comparable to distance learning than to on-campus education. While institutions having adopted e-learning have generally a positive view of its possible impact on quality, there is little convincing evidence about the superior or inferior quality of fully online learning compared to other modes of tertiary education.


    Another question is whether fully online learning has entailed innovation in pedagogy or just replicated with other means the face-to-face experience. As noted above, ICTs could indeed entail pedagogic innovations and help create a community of knowledge among faculty, students and learning object developers that would codify and capitalise over successful innovation in pedagogy. At this stage, there is no evidence that e-learning has yielded any radical pedagogic innovation. The most successful fully online courses generally replicate virtually the classroom experience via a mix of synchronous classes and asynchronous exchanges. Arguably, they have not represented a dramatic pedagogical change. We will see below that in spite of worthwhile experiments, learning objects and open educational resources are still in their infancy. They hold promises for educational innovation though.

The cost of e-learning

    Has e-learning lived up its promises in terms of cost-efficiency? Here again, not if one looks at the most radical promises: as noted above, virtual universities have not replaced brick and mortars and saved the cost of expensive building investments and maintenance; digital libraries have supplemented rather than replaced physical ones; the codification and standardisation of teaching in a way that would allow less faculty or less qualified academics has not become the norm, nor have new online learning objects been invented to replace faculty altogether; finally, it has become clear that there was no once-for-all ICT investments and that the maintenance and upgrading costs of ICT facilities were actually important, contrary to the marginal cost of then replicating and diffusing information.

    Moreover, cost-efficiency has for many universities been a secondary goal compared to the challenge of developing innovative and high quality e-learning courses at many tertiary education institutions. Although the ranking of cost-efficiency has increased between 2002 and 2004 by 16%, 37% of respondents considered ―cutting teaching costs long-term‖ as a key

    rationale in the OBHE survey (OBHE, 2004)a small percentage compared to the two key

    rationales (over 90% of responses). Again, most universities consider e-learning materials and courses as a supplement to traditional class-room or lecture activities rather than a substitute.

    The predominance of web dependent and mixed modes of e-learning makes the assessment of the costs and benefits of e-learning investments more difficult to evaluate as they become part of the on-campus experience. It is striking that the institutions participating in the CERI survey on e-learning had no systematic data on their e-learning costs (OECD, 2005). In this context, and after the burst of the economy bubble that put out of business many e-learning operations (many never really started their operations though), identifying sustainable cost-efficient models for e-learning investments in tertiary education has become critical.

    There are examples of cost-efficient models ―outside‖ the traditional colleges and universities though. Virtual tertiary education institutions as e.g. the Catalonia Virtual University have a cost advantage as they are developing e-learning material from scratch and not ―building

    onto‖ a physical camp. The Open University in the UK which is gradually moving from a traditional distance learning courses using books, video cassettes, and CD-ROMs to online courses has reported that their costs per student are one third of the average cost for similar on-campus programmes in the UK. Fixed capital costs are lower and it is easier to align staffing structures to e-learning processes than at ―traditional‖ universities. The e-learning

    activities of Phoenix University, which is a private for-profit university mainly for adult


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