Policy/practice: an e-learning timeline

This week I am participating in the Italian e-learning society conference in Salerno. Yesterday I gave a talk exploring the link between policy and practice. In particular I focused on two main questions:

  • Is there a gap between e-learning policy and actual practice?
    • How can we bridge the gap?
  • Does e-learning policy adequate reflect current technological advances
    • If not how can we ensure it does?

I am planning to write a series of blog posts expanding on the themes I discussed in the talk. The slides and associated references can be found in this cloud on cloudworks. In this post I concentrate on setting the scene for the talk in terms of reflecting on past e-learning policy perspectives and their associated impact on practice. I began the talk by seeing what lessons could be learnt by scrutinising the e-learning history line. I drew in particular on two chapters; one written with Sue White and Janice Smith looking at UK policy and practice in e-learning over the last forty years and a second much broader look at international policy perspectives.The introduction to the chapter with Su and Janice sets the scene:

In this chapter we outline the relationship policy directives and practice. HE has changed dramatically in the last thirty years through policy drivers such as widening participation, lifelong learning and increased quality assurance. The sector has expanded and diversified, leading to a context that shapes policy directives and has a direct impact on e-learning practice. We consider these structures and trace the growth in the use of learning technologies and associated research.

In the chapter we put forward an e-learning timeline tracing technological policy directives and associated funding initiatives and looked at the subsequent impact on practice. We divided the timeline into four phases (see below) and for each looked at predominant technologies, key reports and initiatives, and characteristics and impact on practice.






Impact on practice

Phase one- 1965-1979: Mainframe systems


Mainframes, batch processing, machine code



Provision of computers for research; central planning for regional consortia

Predominant pedagogical emphasis is instructional, behaviourist. Research is concerned with navigational issues.





Establishment of Computer Board for Universities and Research Councils  (CBURC)




Barnard report


All students to be taught programming; proposal to develop CAL system to teach programming




National Development Programme for Computer Assisted Learning (NDPCAL)

CAL in the disciplines: exploratory use, planned use, service use






Phase two – 1980-1989: Stand-alone systems


Desktop PCs



Shifting costs from centre to periphery; early service developments such as the Resource Discovery Network






Move from computing to IT; emphasis on teaching requirements; suggested national staff development programme

Increased activity in terms of multimedia functionality but still content driven and focused on the interactive tutorial paradigm




Computer Teaching Initiative (CTI)

139 subject-specific development projects


Graphical interfaces







CTI centres

Promoting software use

Phase three – 1990-2000: Networking technologies




Janet launched




The Web








Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP)

Collaborative software development projects

Beginning to see more emphasis on the wider contextual issues (skills, strategy, importance of embedding and integration.) Also a shift away from the emphasis on the individual to the concept of situated learning.






Establishment of the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC)

Internet browsers

Beginnings of network use by non-technical disciplines



JISC ‘Guidelines for developing an  information strategy’

JISC electronic libraries (e-Lib) programme


Beginnings of digitisation/ preservation projects


Commercial Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) appear



Increased use of ICTs; open access to facilities for all students

A move to more holistic and joined-up thinking. Evidence of more linking of development to strategy and policy





ICT use ‘tool of the trade’ for HE lecturers; strategies for integrating ICTs in the curriculum


Managed Learning Environments (MLEs) begin to appear


Learning and Teaching strategies

JISC Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER) programme

JISC MLE programme

Institute for Learning and Teaching (ILT) launched

ICTs in support of non-traditional/off-campus learners; staff development, accreditation

Phase four: 2000 – present: Politicisation and systematisation




Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) launched

Human Resource strategies

Repositories, services, portals, reusable learning objects

Pedagogy shifted away from individual learner to collaboration, communication and the notion of communities of practice


Mobile and

wireless technologies become more prevalent

Government  White paper on HE





DfES and HEFCE e-learning strategies

Closure of the UKeU

Launch of HE Academy




We concluded the chapter by discussing what we considered were the key factors emerging in terms of the relationship between policy and practice:

  • Short-term funding: providing opportunities to experiment with technologies but negating against any form of long-term sustainability and embedding.
  • The management of change and the catalytic nature of e-learning: technology initiatives can often act as triggers for wider change, but to be effective the change process needs to be appropriately managed.
  • Complexity and collaboration: E-learning initiatives are complex and multi-faceted.
  • Risk and unintended consequences: Technological change carries with it inherent risk and often unintended consequences.
  • Visibility and accessibility: How successful e-learning initiatives are depends on how visible they are to key stakeholders.

We concluded:

This chapter has demonstrated that there is a close relationship between policy and practice, which is in turn driven by broader educational and technological drivers. Numerous initiatives and funding programmes have focused on the development and use of learning technologies over the last two decades, resulting in significant changes within HE institutions; increased uptake and use of learning technologies, impact on policy and strategy within institutions, as well as impacting on organisational structures and roles (see chapter five). However, despite this, the increased use of technologies has raised many new questions and issues. One of the most fundamental is, given the interconnection of policy directions and subsequent impact on practice, what factors need to be taken into account to make appropriately informed policy decision making? This question surely is central if we are to see a better, more strategic and targeted use of technologies in the future.

The chapter on ipolicynternational policy perspectives was more of a broad-brush comparison of different national initiatives. It included a diagram articulating the relationship between the broader context within which e-learning policy and initiatives arise; a comparison of country-specific policies and practice and subsequent impact on practice. It was evident that there were a number of ways in which elearning development were impacting on practice, which can be categorised as follows:

  1. Local culture versus global hegemony: On the one hand the communicative dimensions of the Internet offer unprecedented opportunities for global reach and access, development of new forms of collaboration and virtual communities. However, many are increasingly concerned with the insidious domination of the Internet by Western norms and the emergence of English as the de facto language of communication.
  2. Urban versus rural developments: Case studies considered in the review demonstrated the differences in the application of elearning in rural and urban settings.
  3. Commercial imperatives versus Government directives: There is a tension between elearning developments which are driven by commercial imperatives and those which emerge from Government directives or more socially orientated drivers.
  4. Funding models: The scale of funding and the model of funding adopted have a direct impact on the nature of developments undertaken, and on their long-term sustainability.
  5. Complexity and change management: An inherent characteristic of ICT is the exponential pace of change and its consequential impact on education, the economy and society more broadly.
  6. Changing roles and organisational structures: One of the most evident indicators of the impact of technology is the way in which professional roles are changing.
  7. Research versus teaching: Successful implementation of elearning requires time and investment. In many cases to date elearning developments are undertaken by academics (or at least by mixed-teams which include academics). This clearly creates a tension; academics are expected to undertake both teaching and research, however in many institutions research output is significantly prized over teaching and learning.
  8. Risk and unintended consequences: Given the pace of change of technologies there is a raft of risks associated with elearning developments and resultant unintended consequences.
  9. Dissemination and impact: Another aspect which impacts on how successful an elearning initiative is, or is perceived to be, is the degree to which it is visible and accessible to relevant stakeholders.
  10. Evaluation and reflection: One of the key lessons which can be drawn from reviewing the relationship between policy, funding and practice is the importance of setting in place formative evaluation mechanisms alongside initiatives so that individuals and the sector as a whole can critically reflect on the initiatives’ impact and distil out recommendations for future directions.

The chapter concluded by putting forward a set of research questions to explore:

  • Are current intellectual property policies adequate to cover the implications of elearning?
  • How are Governance issues (and in particular issues to do with privacy and individual rights) being addressed?
  • How do elearning policies and developments integrate with other policies (such as those concerned with access and inclusion, widening participation, development of the economy)?
  • How are changing academic and student roles being addressed; what provision is being put in place to meet new and emerging literacy skills?
  • What new markets and models for higher education might be appropriate to capatilise on the potential of elearning and an increasingly competitive globalised environment?
  • Recurrent trends in elearning research include: the effectiveness of elearning, academic and student-related issues, the impact on organisational structures and processes, and a host of associated issues such as quality mechanisms, privacy rights and security issues. How will these trends develop in the future, what new factors are likely to emerge and how can both be taken account of in policy directives?
  • How can we ensure that policy makers are aware of and take account of the multitude of research activities in elearning and how can we ensure the future research developments are of benefit to and feed into policy directives?

And finally:

In reviewing policy and funding arrangements for this chapter, one thing is evident: that practice follows policy directives and the general trend of technological developments, rather than informing them. This suggests that research and development activities in this area are necessarily pragmatic rather than forward thinking. Furthermore the complexity of the area and the wealth of policy directives, initiatives and funding programme makes overall clear coherent thinking nigh on impossible.



One Response to “Policy/practice: an e-learning timeline”

  1. sandi zimmerson Says:

    Thanks for such benefital information and sharing. People need this kind of learning and sharing.

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