25 Years of OU: 2001 – UKeU

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Before MOOCs, before FutureLearn, and all the rest, there was a bold venture to deliver online education globally. In 2000 the UK Government announced the launch of the UK eUniversity (UKeU). It was effectively acting as a portal and broker for UK universities to deliver online courses to a global audience at the heart of the first elearning boom.

I was part of a team, along with Robin Mason and Chris Pegler, who developed a new Masters course, Learning in the Connected Economy, as part of the MAODE. The course was one of three from different unis that formed the first wave of UKeU offerings. As such we were developing the courses simultaneously (often ahead of) the new platform that was being built by Sun.

These first three courses turned out to be pretty much the only courses, and the UKeU failed publicly. There were a number of reasons for this, which have been analysed often enough. From my perspective the key issues were being caught up in the internet business boom at the time (this was pre- the first internet bubble burst). The UKeU had offices around the corner from Buckingham Palace – because a virtual organisation needs some of the most expensive real estate offices in the country, right? They spent a lot on creating their own platform which never quite delivered, because none of the existing products were quite good enough. But ultimately, the business model relied on too many people taking a slice – the universities were selling courses with all the usual (and often a lot more expenditure), the UKeU needed to recoup those expensive offices costs, and there were local recruiters in different countries acquiring students. It began to look like a pyramid selling scheme (as so many ed tech ventures do).

At this distance from it though, there are some positive aspects to be taken from the experience. The UKeU platform was built around the idea of learning objects (the dream was we’d all share content via the platform). This was mostly a hideous nightmare of manually entering metadata, but it also made us rethink pedagogy. To this day, I still write my content in a ‘learning object style’ – that is each activity is largely self-contained. Our design was that within any one week students could select to study some learning objects, and others were compulsory. Because these were independent it gave a lot of freedom to study. I think this model still has a lot to offer.

Another useful lesson was the value of software. It is both expensive and worthless. At the end of the project, despite having spent 20-30 million on the platform, if no-one wants to take it on, it isn’t worth £1. This is different from physical resources – you’d be able to sell that office furniture for something. This is obvious now, but it was an epiphany for me back then.

The last thing I gained from it personally was being involved in something resembling a start-up culture. It was exciting, exhausting and largely divorced from reality. It helped make me a bit immune from that kind of bullshit when it really became big towards the end of the decade.

It was interesting then to see the MOOC hype in 2012, as it revisited a lot of the ambition around the UKeU. This wave has been more successful – FutureLearn, Coursera, etc have gained more students and lasted longer than the UKeU. This is a bit of a thread in 25 Years of Ed Tech – a lot of ideas come round several times. Arguably the UKeU wasn’t that flawed as a proposition – it was just too early.

Covid 19 bit. Firstly, appreciate that back in 2001 elearning was a big thing that was going to take over the world, so don’t think it’s new. Someone will come up with a new version of UKeU as everyone suddenly shifts online. Maybe it will work, but at least make the effort to go back and review what went wrong last time around.

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