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The Learning MarketSpace, September 1, 2000

Written monthly by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg, The Learning MarketSpace provides leading-edge assessment of and future-oriented thinking about issues and developments concerning the nexus of higher education and information technology.


My colleague Russ Edgerton recently sent me a copy of The Business of Borderless Education: UK Perspectives, a report jointly commissioned by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principles of the Universities of the UK (CVCP) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). Its purpose is to assess the impact on UK institutions in both domestic and international markets of the new for-profit, virtual and corporate providers.

What is striking about the report is the quality of its analysis, especially when one compares it to the vast majority of commentary on this topic that originates in the U.S. from sources as diverse as the Chronicle of Higher Education and the predominant higher education associations. The UK report builds on an earlier study and a detailed analysis (328 pages!) of corporate universities and educational businesses in the U.S. conducted by a team of Australian researchers, which is available at

The UK team begins with the observation that raising awareness of the challenges posed by borderless education is no longer the issue. Instead, they focus on the questions, "how significant and real are the challenges?" and "what should be done about them?" In doing so, they take care to "avoid the dangers of generalizing about the likely impact of borderless provision on the basis of what are currently only limited developments in very specific subject areas." This is exceptionally sound advice.

In order to assess potential competition realistically, one must begin by cutting through the hype. As the report comments, "Documenting current activity in borderless higher education is not easy. In a world of 'spin' it is in the interests of new providers to emphasise potential and to massage reality . . . obtaining data on actual student enrolments is difficult."

The lesson: Each time you read about a new virtual endeavor—whether it's a new university, a new company, a new consortium, or a new portal—ask yourself, how many students are studying in how many courses in how many programs? For example, of the thousands of students taking courses online under the auspices of the Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University, the Southern Regional Electronic Campus and the SUNY Learning Network, the great majority are studying at their home campuses. And, one must remember, the combined student enrollment of the three most highly touted independent virtual institutions is about the size of a single large class at a traditional university.

Regarding the international market—in marked contrast to many U.S. writers who salivate at the thought of the "significant revenue potential" offered by exporting American higher education to the global market—the UK team comments, "The unanswered question is, how solid and how large is this market? Surprisingly there is very little research on overseas student preferences and their willingness to study virtually." The Australian team deprecates the notion of a "global market" for higher education, suggesting instead the fragmentation of world markets and the development of numerous niche markets. "Domestically, separate markets exist for undergraduates, graduates students, lifelong learning and continuing professional development. That suggests that these markets will be affected in very different ways by borderless education."

Turning to the corporate sector, the UK team continues to cut through the hype. They note that, despite the large numbers of "corporate universities," in most instances these organizations represent a "re-branding" of their company's human resources and training functions. Little has changed except the name. The majority are focused on improving the competitive edge of their own companies through improved group and individual performance and show few signs of higher education level activity.

The lesson: Despite the adoption of a lot of higher education's language in corporate training circles, few if any companies are, in fact, trying to compete with traditional institutions. While the number of corporate universities rose from 400 in 1988 to 1,600 in 1998, 82 percent of them are used primarily to convey corporate culture to their own employees. Even Motorola University, a frequently cited corporate university exemplar, generates only about seven percent of its revenue externally, primarily through enrollment in courses like "How to establish a corporate university."

On the other hand, the UK team recognizes the potential threat to existing institutions in specific markets from for-profit higher education providers. Key elements in the ability of the new providers to attract adult students include convenient location; 24x7 learner support; frequent enrollment points; short, intensive study periods; the potential for "banking" and transfer of credit; and a curriculum taught by practicing professionals which is of direct and immediate applicability to the workplace. The report observes correctly that in the professional development market, "the social aspects of learning are perhaps less significant than in undergraduate education." These providers are creating a new kind of institution—one built on inclusiveness and accessibility, much like the community college—rather than the exclusiveness and inaccessibility that typifies our medallion institutions. In the process, they are creating new "brands."

In examining these trends, the authors observe that technology is not the primary competitive issue, despite their view that in the longer term "the majority of continuing professional development is likely to become virtual." Both the UK and Australian teams agree that 'at present, virtual, corporate and for-profit institutions are not far in advance of traditional universities in exploiting the potential of technology to change their educational model."

Rather the biggest competitive challenge to existing institutions, they believe, lies in the more efficient way that the new private providers utilize staffing resources and the highly professional approach to teaching and learning that is evident among them. This is produced by close "attention to quality through mandated teacher training, rigorous evaluation of the teaching process, emphasis on supporting all teachers including part-timers, a focus on professional expertise and close attention to service levels for learners."

The major American higher education associations would be well advised to follow their British counterparts. We need a similar study on behalf of U.S. institutions that focuses on a concrete analysis of the developing market in borderless education and the implications for our collective future.



The Psalmist asked, "Why do the heathen rage so furiously, and why do the people imagine a vain thing"? We sometimes ask the same questions about the transformation taking place in higher education. Why do those who don't believe in either the efficacy or desirability of virtual learning venues lament so loudly and vociferously and why do those who do profess to believe in the value of new learning strategies imagine that they will be so much like those of the past?

Answers to the former question seem to be emerging from the fog of rhetoric that has served to obscure the real point. Virtual learning strategies require that the paradigm shift from teaching-centric to learning-centric. After more than 500 years there is reason to believe that we understand something about the quality of teacher-centric education. We regard all sorts of input measures as surrogates for teaching quality: number of advanced degrees earned by faculty, salary levels by faculty rank, faculty-student ratio, and the like. The higher, the better, from a quality standpoint. None of them are very precise—and they are all surrogates—but they mostly make sense—to the education professional as well as to the layperson.

A virtual learning environment is by definition, learner-centric. Now, if you happen to believe that teaching, not learning, is the key issue, then again by definition, the quality of virtual learning is less than that of the conventional teacher-centric strategy. Precious little progress has been made in developing a similar set of surrogate measures for the quality of learner-centric strategies. By now, most everyone is aware of the "no significant difference" phenomenon. Test results compared between students in teacher-centric and learner-centric situations show "no significant difference." Whatever intangibles are brought to the development of the student by teacher-centric strategies, they are not, and never have been, measured by our conventional "quality" surrogates.

So, in fact, there is really little point in trying to debate those who favor a teaching-centric over a learning-centric paradigm. In point of fact, they likely both have an important role to play in higher education. The problem is that teacher-centric education does not scale well—from either an access or a cost standpoint. As a society we simply must create educational venues that admit of more learning opportunities for more people and they must do so at lesser cost.

The principal way we have attacked this problem to date has been through the creation of "virtual" universities. Most such entities that have been created have been statewide or regional. Many are nothing more than a catalog or index of courses that are available from independent providers. The interested student must negotiate with each provider for the terms and conditions of the course. Can it be taken for credit? And if so, towards what degrees? What does it cost? Can it be done on the Net? Does it require attending satellite learning centers? And, a host of similar questions that are unique, or nearly so, for every course appearing the virtual catalog.

We are still quite some time from passing a value judgment on virtual universities but enough time has elapsed to begin to sense what does and does not work. Regional consortia generally promote the catalog model which, while of some use to consumers (potential students), does not answer the most important questions of those desiring virtual education opportunities. In fact, the catalog model to date has done little, if anything, to provide useful consumer information about either the quality of the offerings listed or the level of ancillary learning support in features such as 24x7 help desks and virtual library resources. Nor have they done much to insure transferability of credit between degree granting institutions.

Statewide models generally demonstrate more coherence in attempting to resolve the deep seated issues and are typically better, though still woefully under, funded. The statewide efforts have a truly mixed track record. Some have not made it past the gestation period. Others are, to date, more hype and promise than reality. And they mostly seem based heavily on an extrapolation of the past rather than an interpolation into the future. Rather than discovering a new and healthy competitive model where institutions are encouraged to develop virtual offerings to address statewide issues of access or cost deficiency, a coercion model reminiscent of the old coordinating board granting of geographic franchises has been the norm. Institutions don't opt in to further and expand their mission statements but rather are pressured in under the threat of losing some portion of their historic funding.

Most models continue to rely on the historical precedent of an individual or small group of faculty creating the virtual learning experience. And, by and large, they continue to expect that the resource expenditure necessary is about that of the past—some faculty time. Few people seem prepared to realize that the extraordinary infrastructure institutions have constructed to support on-campus learning needs to be extended into cyberspace. This problem is only exacerbated by the press hype of leading commercial service providers that promise to "get your course on the Net in a week or two."

Virtual learning venues make economic and public policy sense when they significantly expand access to learning and, in the process, reduce the cost to the learner. Unlike the historic classroom where course development costs are relatively minimal and course maintenance costs (faculty salaries in high faculty-student ratio settings) are high, new approaches to virtual learning environments will be characterized by high, upfront, developmental and low maintenance costs. The cost savings will be apparent over a period of years, not overnight.

We will be able to better judge the relative success of the emerging virtual universities when we have evidence that they are appropriately funded as models that truly recognize the fundamental differences between the teaching-centric and learning-centric paradigm. Until then, the naysayers will continue to rage while the supporters promote the vain hope that we can build the virtual university on minor perturbations of the historic model.




November 13, 2000 Orlando Airport Marriott, Orlando, Florida
February 26, 2001, Dallas, Texas

Co-sponsored by the Executive Forum in Information Technology at Virginia Tech

This seminar will present the results of the first of three rounds of the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign. Learn from faculty project leaders how to increase quality and reduce costs using information technology. Faculty from four institutions will talk about their models of course redesign, including their decisions regarding student learning objectives, course content, learning resources, course staffing and task analysis, and student and project evaluation. These models provide varied approaches that demonstrate multiple routes to success, tailored to the needs and context of each institution.

These seminars provide a unique opportunity for you to:

  • Learn firsthand how to increase quality and reduce costs using information technology from successful faculty project leaders.
  • Find out how to design learning environments for the future by tapping the expertise of those who have done it.
  • Talk with experienced faculty from multiple institutions about how and why they made their redesign decisions.
  • Move beyond "today" and learn where on-line learning is going . . . find a model that will work for your institution.

September 18 - 19, 2000
Charleston Place, Charleston, South Carolina
Sponsored by Eduprise.

This invitational seminar will provide Chief Executive and Chief Academic Officers an opportunity to develop a strategy framework for e-Learning that is attuned to institutional resources and goals and open to commercial and nonprofit partnerships as a means to achieve focus and a favorable return on investment. Participants will interact with peers and nationally recognized speakers to discuss assessing organizational readiness to implement an effective e-Learning program; planning, developing, implementing, and evaluating e-instruction; linking IT investments to strategic academic goals; insourcing versus outsourcing; and finding an appropriate balance between a virtual-campus instructional program and virtual enhancements to traditional classroom-based instructional programs.

There is no registration fee to participate in this thought provoking two-day session.


Seminar: Thursday, October 26, 2000, 8:30 am-4:00 pm
Product Demos: Wednesday, October 25, 2000, 4:00-7:00 pm
Location: Atlanta, Georgia

Moderators: Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg

More and more companies are entering the higher education market, providing new and different approaches to supporting your teaching/ learning efforts. This workshop provides a rare opportunity for you to compare and contrast commercial offerings in an impartial environment and to gain an overall understanding of the industry.

  • Learn in one day what would take you many to find out on your own
  • Identify potential partners for developing new learning environments
  • Meet your colleagues who are wrestling with the same set of issues
  • See product demonstrations (optional activity on October 25).

Featuring moderated discussions with:

  • Blackboard Inc.
  • Eduprise
  • WebCT

If you are involved in decisions regarding expenditure of funds for teaching/learning services and products, you can't afford to miss this workshop!


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Archives of The Learning MarketSpace, written by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg and published from July 1999 – February 2003, are available here.

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Copyright 2000 by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg.