Back to school

E-learning has much to offer children, adults and the government alike

When the word "learning" was first prefixed with an "e" and a hyphen in the 1990s, few people understood what possibilities lay ahead. E-learning - education through the use of electronic technology - has its roots in the 19th century, when the phonographer Isaac Pitman taught shorthand courses via correspondence in the UK. Since then universities - the Open University being a prime example - have used mail, radio and television to provide students of all ages and from all backgrounds with a flexible and varied learning experience. This was enhanced by the introduction of the internet and e-mail.

Companies were quick to see online learning as a cheap, easy way to educate their employees. Why pay expensive tuition fees to a real teacher for "face time" (as Microsoft coined it) when you could simply place your staff in front of a screen attached to an internet course anywhere in the world at any time? No more need for your employees to take time off to go on a course.

Education establishments, on the other hand, saw e-learning as a great means to earn additional income in an increasingly competitive market. They could place vast amounts of information on to the internet and have any number of students studying at the same time. In the US, for example, the California Virtual University, a consortium of nearly 100 colleges and universities, opened in 1997 with more than 1,500 online courses. And in 1998, NYU Online was founded. Yet with the majority of people still relying on poor dial- up connections, many of these market- driven enterprises failed at the first hurdle, not helped by the bursting of the internet bubble and the overenthusiastic expectations of investors. NYU Online struggled on until 2001 before closing.

Recently, however, there has been new interest in e-learning. Last year, the UK government published a consultation document, Towards a Unified e-Learning Strategy, which highlighted the major contribution that e-learning could make. As well as flexible study, the Department for Education and Skills listed personal- ised support, individualised learning and collaborative learning as some of e-learning's benefits.

So why is e-learning firmly back on the agenda? Given that most jobs today require people to be able to use a computer, the government believes that learning via the use of electronic media throughout the education system makes economic sense, helping to produce people with highly employable skills. But another part of the answer has to be broadband, which the government has pledged to make available to every primary and secondary school in the country by 2006.

E-learning is not only about courses designed for use online, but also about using all kinds of electronic media as additional classroom resources. With broadband, e-learning can mean so much more than just pages of information on the internet.

Having access in classrooms in Wales has already made a real difference to teachers. It enables them to have the internet constantly on without the worry of expense, loss of connection or having to wait for ever for a page to load. They can now begin to explore some of the games and websites designed specifically for their key-stage group. E-learning is as much an addition to the classroom (be it in a primary school or further education college) as BBC Schools, 4Learning and Open University programmes.

Broadband also makes learning from home much more productive. This is a particular advantage for students in full-time work, but also for children's homework. And parents previously unfamiliar with computers can learn essential skills alongside their offspring.

Learners can benefit not only from the communication tools of e-mail and instant messaging, but also from more sophisticated applications such as videoconferencing and live tutorials via webcams. Tutors can now give lectures from the comfort of their own living rooms to students in Japan and Australia. At the same time, students can have one-on-ones with their tutor without the fear of looking stupid in front of a whole class.

The days of the World Wide Wait are pretty much over, as broadband enables instant communication in most mediums to large numbers of people. But there is one proviso in all this: that the technology must be seen as a tool and a resource rather than an end in itself. However amazing the technology is, the content needs to be high-quality, too.

The challenges facing the government in getting its e-learning strategy right are great. Much relies upon education leaders, teachers, learners and commercial suppliers to share their skills. The UK is in a good position to excel in this area, especially now that broadband is more available in both homes and institutions. Britain has refined distance-learning practices, strong IT/education societies and commercial expertise. What the government has to do is enable these different bodies to work together.

Kathryn Corrick is the New Statesman's online manager and co-ordinator of the Bright Sparks e-learning awards scheme (www.newstatesman.com/brightsparks)