The e-Tools (1) Report: Pedagogic, Assessment and Tutoring Tools

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6. Reference Sites

6.1 Original Plan for Reference Sites

The original plan for the reference sites was to construct a list based on numbers of e students, and political considerations, as follows:

  • Open University (UK).

  • University for Industry (Ufi).

  • University of the Highlands and Islands.

  • Two other large UK universities with large off-campus e-learning operations.

  • FernUniversität.2

  • Dutch Open Universiteit.1

  • Some large Scandinavian e-campus.

  • Two off-campus e-Universities in Canada – such as Athabasca, Open Learning Agency, TechBC.

  • Likewise in Australia.2

  • Likewise in Hong Kong.

  • Likewise in Singapore – for example ICUS if it has got underway.3

  • Likewise in Malaysia.

  • A large continental European university with an e-tradition – Katholieke Universiteit Leuven comes up in all the lists.4

  • About four from the USA.

  • One or two corporate universities if they are close to the academic model

However, the activity of generating reference sites separate from the vendors has not been as fruitful as originally expected. Under a rather crude guideline of “at least 1,000 users studying online, off campus, at home”, almost all alleged e-universities appear to fail to qualify, except for the well-known US sites (University of Phoenix,5 etc.) and the large UK and European distance-teaching universities.

In particular, much-quoted exemplars such as Western Governors University (WGU) and TechBC (Vancouver, Canada) fail to qualify. TechBC6 is reported as having only 200 students at present, with much studying takes place on campus. WGU is still in a “delicate” condition, being propped up by governor support more than by an organic market.7

In addition, several sites that qualify – such as FernUniversitat – run home-grown e teaching systems not available to other sites, which do not help us to reality-check vendors. In general there seems a lack of relevant sites in continental Europe.3

Input from HEFCE Survey

A fall-back plan was to look at the returns from the sector in response to the HEFCE circular on the e-University. While these contained much fascinating information, there were two main problems with them from our point of view:

  • Very few of them contained any information about what systems institutions were running or even how many students they had on offsite e-courses (note that only 15 out of 85 mentioned that they offered or were developing e-courses).

  • A substantial number (double figures) of universities known to have e-learning gurus and/or large e-learning programmes did not respond and several of the other responses were very short.

Most information we obtained was known to us already – but such information on systems and numbers as we did obtain has been included in the table below. We apologise to other institutions for leaving out much work which they will regard as top rate, but we focussed in our table ruthlessly on numbers and systems.

(Table on next page.)

TABLE 3 Distance Learning in the HE Sector4




Web-based learning and an extensive DL5 programme.


WebCT described as “de facto” standard.


400 DL students.

Anglia Polytechnic

Pilot for College of School Leadership – about 1400 heads online. Uses from Oracle. Many other schools-based e-activities.


1450 DL students worldwide. Traditional DL at present.

Heriot Watt

Extensive experience of DL in 100 countries.


Long tradition of DL. Around 5,000 DL students, of which 2500 are overseas postgraduate.

Liverpool John Moores

Web-based DL course with 200 students.


Extensive Masters-level DL programme.

Northern College

1500 DL students (mostly teachers).


MA with DL students in 35 countries.

Reading College

“Digital Academy” cited. [See vendor submission also.]

South Bank

1,000 DL students per year. Apparently home-grown MLE.


Extensive Masters-level DL programme. Uses Blackboard CourseInfo [MLE, see vendor submission], Placeware [synchronous system] and WBT Manager.


Uses COSE [home-grown] and Lotus LearningSpace.


Internet-based MSc – 142 students from 12 countries.


Using Lotus LearningSpace – initially on campus.


Uses FirstClass.


DL MBA with e-elements for 1800 students from 70 countries.

Source: “Summary of the Responses from the FE and HE Sectors on the e-University”, HEFCE internal document, May 2000.

We add here some information that is well known to experts in the field and thus not commercial in confidence:

  • The UK Open University runs FirstClass (from Centrinity). It is available to all its students and currently has 100,000 users, planned to rise even further in their next academic year. There is some use of Lotus Notes in the Open University Business School. Although experimenting with several other systems, some home-grown, the OU has not standardised on any other e-learning system and does not run an MLE. (The OU runs Microsoft Exchange also, but only as an e-mail system for its full-time staff.)

  • Sheffield Hallam University runs FirstClass for all its students, both undergraduate and post-graduate (including overseas). There is extensive use of conferencing, often in an optional way for many courses, but for some courses, in education and computing/business, it is more integrated. SHU also uses FirstClass for e-mail for staff in faculties/departments. (Central administrative staff use Microsoft Exchange for e-mail.) SHU also runs TopClass (from WBTSystems) for several undergraduate courses.

  • Coventry University makes extensive use of WebCT and has been much visited by other academics.

  • De Montfort University has a site license for WebCT also and has put substantial funds into development of e-resources.

  • Robert Gordon University runs a high-profile “virtual campus”.

Possible Next Steps

Given the lack of information on numbers and systems, if there had been more time and resource available the next step would have been to check all the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund (TQEF) submissions. If there had been a lot of extra time and effort, a further step would have been to carry out a specific survey of all HEIs, perhaps under the auspices of the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association (UCISA)1 or JISC.

Thus in the middle of the project we decided to focus more on reality-checking the vendors’ claims about their reference sites. See the next section. We believe that most of the information one needs can be found there, except that information on student numbers is still scanty.

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