Crystal-clear reflections on European e-learning trends

Contribution to the President’s Blog
From Morten Flate Paulsen,
Member of the EDEN Executive Committee

MortenI recently spent some days in my rustic log cabin in the Norwegian mountains. The combination of reading, cross country skiing and fresh air was welcome. It gave me time to reflect on the experiences I made during two years’ work with the Megatrends project. The project resulted in four major reports that can be downloaded from the project’s web site at

The Megatrends project identified and analysed 26 successful European megaproviders of e-learning and ten conspicuous e-learning initiatives, which did not reach targeted goals. Fortunately, we experienced that it was much easier to find examples of successful e-learning initiatives that are robust and sustainable, than it was to find examples of failures.

We focused on distance education provision and did not include on-campus e-learning. The analysed megaproviders had more than 100 courses or 5000 course enrolments in 2005. They represented 11 European countries and included 8 distance education institutions, 13 universities and university consortia, and 5 corporate training providers. From a sustainability perspective, it is worth while noting that some megaproviders have offered online education for more than 20 years. Five of them started e-learning in the eighties and ten in the nineties. The largest provider, Learn Direct, claimed to have 400 000 course enrolments in 2005. It is also interesting to realize that among the six top ranked institutions there are no universities, only corporate training providers and distance education institutions.

During the project, I realized that educational research rarely focuses on failure or on the lessons that can be learnt from failure. We found that data on discontinued initiatives was difficult to collect. Some key individuals refused to be interviewed and others would not be referred to. Important documentation is not made available, and websites are quietly closed down. It was, however useful to learn that some of the content was still available via the Internet Archive.

Identification of characteristics and trends of e-learning initiatives that failed to reach targeted goals should be vital for the progress and development of the field. It was disturbing to find that the ten initiatives we analysed spent €150M of primarily public money before they were closed down after an average of four years in operation. As tax payers, we should be concerned about how public educational initiatives have wasted money on dubious initiatives and how hard it could be to reveal details about them. So, the project analysed the ten discontinued initiatives and found that political initiatives and
consortia dominate the discontinued initiatives in this study. Several of the consortia were actually perceived as competitors of their mother institutions. Many governmental and political online education initiatives have not been
sustainable. These initiatives are often very visible and expensive. One reason for the problems might be inconsistent policy due to changing governments and political disagreements. Compromises and lack of market knowledge may
also contribute to sub-optimal decisions.

The Megatrends project concluded with 27 recommendations to help institutions obtain robustness and sustainability in online education. I believe these recommendations could be useful for EDEN-members and others who would like
to provide robust and sustainable online education.

Snow smilyWith all best wishes for successful online education,
Morten Flate Paulsen

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