eLearning and Economic Interests -

Some Critical Reflections


Gerhard Michael Ambrosi




June 2002


1  Academia and eLearning


Over the last decade, an enormous amount of effort has been expended in tertiary teaching and research which is directed at developing and utilising electronically assisted teaching materials. Virtually all the elements of present-day eLearning - be it now the WWW-structure itself which transports eLearning, be it the subject matter of university-oriented teaching materials, be it the academic disciplines which are necessary for methodically sound evaluations of the contents and consequences of eLearning - all of these are products of mental exertions having their origin in academic teaching and research.1 In short: eLearning is a societal activity which is not invented by business and administration for academic teaching. It is rather a produce of and essentially based on academic teaching and research. Academia - the sector of society which deals with tertiary teaching and with curiosity-driven research - is not at the receiving end of eLearning activities but at the giving end.


Memoranda and resolutions of recent times which deal with eLearning can convey a rather different impression. Implicitly - if not occasionally even explicitly - it is claimed that European academia does not live up to its obligations in the `brave new eWorld', to paraphrase Aldous Huxley's title for a scientifically controlled utopia. Political administrations and influential business interests are working at and are commissioning utopias about the eLearning world of the immediate future. One of their important messages is the prediction that conventional academia will have only a minor role to play in future academic education - unless it conforms to the propagated visions about a "virtual'' higher learning world.


The German politician and one-time founding rector of the re-founded Erfurt university Peter Glotz [2000] - now, in 2002, the German government's representative at the European constitutional convention - predicted in March 2000 that by March 2005 more than half the students will study at virtual universities. Due to his former position as university rector and his subsequent position as director of a media institute at St. Gallen University he may be considered to have been in a particularly good position to make that kind of prediction and to make it come true. But so far, half-way through the time span of that prognosis, Peter Glotz's prediction does not seem to have much relevance for academic life.2 Is this not a good proof of the indictment of academia's failure to follow the bright light of the e-learning age?



When a prediction fails to materialise, it is easy to scold reality for the failure. Maybe it is this - understandable - reaction which is the source of some discontentment uttered about academia's supposedly bad behaviour towards the propagated eLearning world. But disappointment about unpredicted outcomes can become more fruitful if one re-thinks the basis of one's inappropriate predictions.



There seems to be an increasing awareness in public life, that in the world of memoranda and resolutions about the future of eLearning in academic life, there was hitherto a considerable element of commercial wishful thinking. A case in point is the preface of the report about the conference on the occasion of which Peter Glotz made the just quoted prognosis. Hamm and Bentlage [2000],p.7, employees of the Bertelsmann foundation, declare in that context:


"In the United States hundreds of millions of dollars are invested by now in different variants of Virtual Universities. Thus, with and besides traditional universities, there is emerging a market for education which is predicted by some business consultants to constitute one of the largest fields of e-commerce. Education for them is the business of the future. Universities in Europe and in Germany must position themselves in this field and have to face global competition in the web.''


This seems to have been a paradigm cultivated at a node of some high-powered multimedia interests: education as the business of the future. As the quoted statements coming from the Bertelsmann foundation suggest, the occupation with eLearning in this paradigmatic context has the function to capture new markets for newly defined and developed intellectual property and to do so as quickly as possible before they are snatched up by others. If this is indeed the focus of the events bringing together the representants of business, politics, and administration in the name of eLearning, then it might be particularly interesting to reflect about the role of academia in this particular context.


One must be clear in this debate that the direction of such a reflection cannot be to question eLearning as such in an academic context. We have just emphasised: eLearning is an academic brainchild. But exactly because this is so, it is the duty of people in academia to look after the fate of its brainchild and to wish it well. Part of such a concern for eLearning is to look after its associates and after the influences it is exposed to.


In the following section 2 we will look at some connections of eLearning with business interests, noting some remarkable marketing hype and some - so far mainly vain - hope for the conquest of enormous educational markets. In the then following section 3 we will look a bit closer at some of the administrative statements and orientations associated with eLearning. Neither on the national level nor on the European level do they meet the requirement for circumspect sober assessment of the issues at stake. Especially if we look at the wider societal context of technological change and of the role of university education - as will be done in section 4 - it will be apparent that the scope for critical evaluation is far wider than the one met in the present debate. Section 5 is meant to re-direct the perspective from the pre-occupation with electronic technology and eCommerce to the fundamental principles of higher education. The summary and conclusion in section 6 will point out that there are good signs that the eLearning challenge will be taken up by the European Higher Education systems, but it must exert an appeal to the minds within the system.




2  Business and eLearning


The quote just given in the introduction about the vision of enormous turnover promised by eLearning might appear as being not quite fair. This statement was made by two employees, working for a project involving the non-profit Bertelsmann Foundation. Therefore it seems to be somewhat out of context to associate such a disinterested - nota bene non-profit - position with commercial interests, as we did above.


But doubts might arise about the true extent of disinterestedness of the agents of the Bertelsmann foundation if one reads press reports like the following about the intentions and orientations of the Bertelsmann company, the donor of the said and quoted foundation of the same name.3 As Ewing [2000] put it in Business Week:


"Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Middelhoff spends so much time yakking about the Internet that you might mistake him for Al Gore. But then, it takes a lot of talking to convince people you can turn a former publisher of religious pamphlets into the biggest e-commerce media company in the world.''


Thus there is the well published agenda for the Bertelsmann company to become "the biggest e-commerce media company in the world''. This is a perfectly legitimate agenda, of course. There is nothing wrong in seeing a market and supplying for the needs which are articulated on that market. Indeed, it is the duty of a CEO to behave in this manner. But his obligations are to the shareholders, not to the public. Public debate should be aware of the difference - unless it can be taken for granted that "what is good for Bertelsmann is also good for everybody else''.


Past experience up to our present days show that uncritical mingling of private and public interests often do not do lasting good - neither to the company concerned, nor to the public at large. The most dramatic case in point is the Enron bankruptcy: during years of close cooperation with and generous support for President George W. Bush's democratic party, the company quickly grew to become the biggest energy supplier. To no avail: the Enron company collapsed among accusations of fraud and management misdeeds. It left thousands of hopeful investors bereft of their wealth, electricity-dependent communities without energy, and the acting American administration with dents in its reputation.4


No insinuation is intended with regard to the Bertelsmann Company which has nothing to do with the negative experience just related. But the fact that the majority shareholders of that company recently dismissed / let go their prominent CEO Thomas Middelhoff might be an indication that there were second thoughts about the management strategies of the last years.5 As far as eLearning - or rather: eLiteracy - is concerned, they were truly spectacular, however. They culminated in the holding of a veritable "21st Century Literacy Summit'' in Berlin in March 2002.6


In order to fathom the significance of this event, it must be remembered that in the European Union context, a "summit'' is the non plus ultra of activities within the European Union Treaty, bringing together heads of state and government and the President of the European Commission, i.e. the European Council. The European Commission, via commissioner Erkki Liikanen, [2002] and the German head of government, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, [2002], were indeed involved with active contributions and expressions of gratitude to the organisers, namely the Bertelsmann Foundation and the AOL Time Warner Foundation. But not only this European aspect - even the trans-atlantic implication of "summit'' meetings was alluded to by having the former (Clinton administration's) secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, [2002] delivering the opening address of the Public Policy Panel. To top it all, the "Summit'' was flanked by the publication of a White Paper [Bertelsmann Foundation and AOL Time Warner Foundation, 2002b]- a document, which in the European context is meant to be a mandate for detailed action and a benchmark for success, as exemplified by the famous White Paper on the Completion of the Internal Market. Indeed, the AOL-Bertelsmann White Paper gives detailed suggestions what should be done on educational, workplace, and governmental level in the near future. This is a hype of two companies' foundations for selling their views of eLiteracy as they see it which can hardly be topped.7


As already stated above, some of this type of hype has been confronted at long last by sobering facts and reluctant shareholders.8 But it is maybe a sad testimony to the lack of perspective in public administration and in the wider public that it was not sobering comment from the latter quarters which started a noticeable wave of critical reflections about eLiteracy and eLearning.



3  Administrations and eLearning


In her contribution to the Berlin "21st Century Literacy Summit'', Madeleine Albright, [2002], former Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, presented one central issue to be:


"The Internet has also created a challenge for leaders of governments that are still largely outside the international system
They can plug into the new world economy, reform their systems, open their markets, and respect freedom of information; creating space for others to challenge their power.


Or they can try to remain outside the system, close their economies, protect their markets and stifle the flow of information; creating conditions under which power is not worth having.''


But the choice is not that simple. Opening to the internet is not synonymous with creating open markets. The market economy is a fragile system which is not least endangered by its own participants, as is witnessed by the protracted legal issues associated with the overbearing market power exerted via the Windows operating system. As legal and administrative surveillance is called for and practiced in this instance, so it is necessary in a multitude of other aspects of a fruitful usage of eLearning. They range from basics like open source software to fundamentals like the question of the definition, the protection and the exploitation of intellectual property rights. Public debate and administrative utterances have by no means faced up to the extent and depth of this realm of issues.


There is a general, but diffuse, awareness of imminent breaks of traditions and of inherited structures. Thus, to give an example, a private sector commissioned scenario sees ahead a change in public sector broadcasting in such a way that content supply is reduced in favour of the public sector merely commenting and structuring the existing contents.9 As long as the private sector does have the herculean vitality to take over all the public functions some would like it to assume, this might be alright. But with the spectacular bankruptcy of the Leo Kirch media empire in 2002, doubts about such a vitality do not appear entirely unfounded. Extending this type of consideration to eLearning in the narrower, higher education oriented sense, one may see reason to warn of too strong an outsourcing of learning material development and application out of the academic sector proper.


It certainly is nice to read that in his contribution to the 21st Century Literacy Summit, Gerhard Schröder, [2002] exhorted the organisers to think not only of share holder value but also of their moral obligations.10 But the question also to be considered in this context is whether the private agents - when they do have the moral urge to do unselfish good deeds of education - also have always the economic stamina to fulfill their hopefully chosen duties.


One does not have to be a denigrating critic of the present society in order to muse whether the imminent project of re-shaping ideas of learning, literacy and societal interaction are not so full of moral and economic hazards that rash action is not called for. In spite of this, the European institutions seem to operate under the assumption that the public debate has reached a stage which calls for urgent administrative action.


In this vein, the Barcelona European Council [2002],p.18 of 15 and 16 March 2002, in the presidency's conclusion, asserts:



"40. Further progress is needed. For the next phase, the European Council: ...
- calls on the Commission to draw up a comprehensive eEurope 2005 Action Plan ¼ focusing on ¼ eGovernment, eLearning, eHealth and eBusiness''


Thus it seems as if further progress in eLearning is: a) at par with other aspects of electronic penetration of society and b) a subject of the political volition and of the administrative competence of governments and their apparatuses. But even within institutions like the Bertelsmann foundation and among other interested actors on the eLearning scene there are severe doubts about their previously believed in development scenarios. In view of such doubts one might reasonably warn that now is not the time for unreflected administrative actionism with regard to eLearning. If even shareholders have second thoughts about the previous hype with regard to the commercial and societal promises of the internet, it is strange that the actionism at EU level continues as if nothing had happened in the rest of society.



4  Society and eLearning


Where could there be landmarks for orientation when trying to enter a deeper exploration and evaluation of eLearning-developments? One possible starting point for such an endeavour could be to investigate learning and academic curiosity in their particular societal context.


In economics, the customary approach to this type of question is to treat knowledge as "human capital'' and learning as investment in such capital. Human capital can have different societal relevance, depending on its impact on the welfare of the members of society. For example: to know how to win at poker games is of purely personal relevance. But to know how to be a good heart surgeon is not only of personal relevance for the practicing doctor. It is also of utmost importance for all those whose lives are saved. Therefore there should be societal concern that there are good doctors around whereas societal debate is not very likely to show much concern about the quality of poker gamesmanship (unless it leads to bar brawls which occupy the sheriff). This type of reasoning has been well developed by authors like Nobel laureate Gary Becker, [1993]. This approach could be helpful for explaining specific aspects of the varying attractiveness of eLearning in the economy, e.g.  why eLearning proved to be fairly successful in the context of intrafirm education, but less so on the level of university education.11


But a narrowly economistic approach might not do justice to the type of problems which arise when centuries old means of communication and of production seem to be called into question by new technologies.


There is considerable plausibility in the old adage that society and societal self-conceptions are shaped in an important way by the `means of production' of their time. Thus, the phenomenon of mass movements in the industrialised countries might be a corollary of industrialised mass production. Similar interactions might also be suspected to exist between the realms of production on the one hand and academic life on the other hand. But if there is such interaction, is it then not self-evident that in a computerised society we also need computerised learning and teaching? When eBusiness and eGovernment are the call of the day, could then eUniversity and eLearning stand aloof?


But the plausibility of an interaction between the conditions of the daily life of a society and its intellectual life does not stand for any causal stringency. The age of the steam engine did not call forth a specific "steam teaching''. Quite to the contrary. There once was a fruitful antithetical interaction between the material conditions and demands of the society contemporary with steam engines on the one hand and the re-organisation of its academic life on the other hand. The famous "Humboldt Reform'' which for many years shaped the German university systems in the 19th and 20th centuries are a case in point.12 Although motivated by urgent societal challenges threatening the very existence of the state he lived in, Humboldt's reforms shunned from calls to quickly imbibe `modern' lingo and learning. Indeed, he expressly renounced concern with correct "knowing'' and talking and called for the formation of new "scientific characters'' instead:


"Only science which has been truly internalized can change the character; and state and mankind are not concerned with talking and knowing but with character and doing.'' [Humboldt, 1964,p.258]


Does this mean that knowledge was considered to be obsolete in the universities of Humboldt's conception? Not at all. Wilhelm von Humboldt's demand on higher education to supply an internalised scientific attitude was not meant to happen without prior preparation and without intellectual drill and exercise. But this was first of all the task of lower institutions of learning, in particular of the secondary schools. Once the scientific thirst for knowledge was internalised, the quest for further knowledge would look after itself.


This is the deeper reason why in the Humboldtian conception of higher education there was no programme for "life-long learning'' - a concept so commonplace today. For somebody who is trained to have as "second nature'' a scientifically researching attitude to one's surrounding, an appeal to "life-long learning'' must sound like the call for "life-long quenching of thirst'' - like a banal incitement to make a special programme of an act of fulfilling a self-felt urge.


It seems that outsiders tend to believe that the self-felt urge to know and the capacity to search for the required knowledge are traits which cannot reasonably be expected from the typical representative of modern European academia any more. Nevertheless, it is a perspective which does merit cultivation, even by politicians responsible for educational matters. In any case, it is maybe worth noting that it was not a time of low academic productivity when the Humboldtian ideals were generally accepted among academics and among people responsible for cultural political decisions.13 Before this background it should appear that it is not for the granting of privileges that "academic freedom'' should still be a major aim of cultural policy. "Academic freedom'' in the sense of combining academic teaching with curiosity driven research is an important agent of intellectual progress and eventually of material well-being of society.


As far as tertiary education as the pinnacle of the educational system is concerned, Wilhelm von Humboldt offered posterity the interesting perspective that it is not just "knowledge'' which is important for furthering the condition of mankind. It is rather knowledge produced from a higher vantage point of an internalised urge to know due to an individual's intellectual socialisation as a scientist driven by curiosity. Thus, in this view, it is not the transportation of pre-prescribed knowledge which society needs most urgently - at least at the apex of its educational system - but a dependable attitude of its members of having an urge to find the not-yet-known.


Nowadays German cultural politicians who really should be among the first to consider themselves as guardians of the Humboldtian insights, instead feel liberated to proclaim the "death of Humboldt''14 without planning to become his heirs. The European Commission proclaims the "knowledge society''. But a critical reflection about the intellectual way ahead on the basis of the new electronic media should take note of the old belief that what really counts for society is a truly scientific mentality and not just "new'' knowledge and "elearned'' lingo.



5  Universities and eLearning


At this point it should be pointed out that the basics of the Humboldtian conceptions of academic life are not as dead as some outsiders might believe. One of the much alluded to documents in this connection is the Magna Charta Universitatum [European Universities, 1988] which, under the heading "Fundamental principles'' [of the vocation of universities, GMA] declares: "



"The university is an autonomous institution at the heart of societies differently organized because of geography and historical heritage; it produces, examines, appraises and hands down culture by research and teaching. To meet the needs of the world around it, its research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power.''



"Teaching and research in universities must be inseparable if their tuition is not to lag behind changing needs, the demands of society, and advances in scientific knowledge.''



"Freedom in research and training is the fundamental principle of university life, and governments and universities, each as far as in them lies, must ensure respect for this fundamental requirement. ...''


We thus have here the proclamation of intellectual independence from all "political authority and economic power''. Among this we should also count the independence from market predictions,15 especially if they are on rather shaky grounds.16 In our reading of the Magna Charta Universitatum, much of the above mentioned current debates about eLearning and higher education has little to do with the fundamentals of the vocation of universities.


This document is also interesting for stressing the Humboldtian conception of "inseperability'' of university teaching and research. They must, of course, be united not only in the administrative structure of the respective institutions but in the minds of their professors and students. Item 3 confirms the idea of "freedom of research and training'' and calls for the governments' respect for this demand. One might well see a solid persistence of the Humboldtian conception in these fundamental principles.


This is not just a pipe-dream entertained in an isolated academic "ivory tower''. It is a manifestation of principles which must still be reckoned with. This "Magna Charta'' was expressly referred to and invoked in 1999 by the Ministers of Education who proclaimed "The European Higher Education Area'' [European Ministers of Education, 1999] and who stated in this context (emphasis added, GMA):


"European higher education institutions, for their part, have accepted the challenge and taken up a main role in constructing the European area of higher education, also in the wake of the fundamental principles laid down in the Bologna Magna Charta Universitatum of 1988. This is of the highest importance, given that Universities' independence and autonomy ensure that higher education and research systems continuously adapt to changing needs, society's demands and advances in scientific knowledge.''


Although in an other place of the quoted document the ministers speak of a "Europe of Knowledge'' in a rather un-Humboldtian sense, their allusion to the Magna Charta Universitatum shows that the tradition and intellectual solidarity, independent from all "political authority and economic power'' is still a valuable asset - and it seems to be so also for the European Ministers of Education, if we may believe their approval of the "fundamental principles'' just stated.


The insistence on university traditions does not preclude university reform. It does not in itself hinder the acceptance of eLearning in a higher education context. Quite to the contrary. We point out above in section 1 and below in the appendix that eLearning may be considered as being mainly a brainchild of academic life. But what universities must be wary of is to be exposed to outside forces driving at an uncritical application of the new media. Such wariness is especially called for when there might be concern that "hype'' could be the guide for unwarranted change.


It could be, of course, that European universities are constitutionally so reluctant to change that they will not adopt new ways of teaching on principle. But such a charge must be substantiated by fact. The eLearning drive certainly is not a convincing case in point. One can maybe revel in phantasies about students in the year 2005 not going to universities any more but instead they go to the `friendly information broker' around the (cyberspace) corner who then, from the next internet café, will channel the educational energies of the youngsters to varying virtual campusses.17 But one cannot blame the universities if such phantasies are exposed by reality as what they are.18 It would be malicious slander to make a case against the reformability of real universities when reveries about Virtual Universities published by private agents with vested interest do not come true.


It must be stressed in this context: the European universities have shown enormous adaptability in the past. The mere fact that the present mass universities all over Europe can manage to subscribe to the fundamental principles of the Magna Charta Universitatum - a document full of the humanistic concepts of autonomous university education which in old times was the privilege of the chosen few - this is an outstanding proof of adaptability. One might dismiss the acceptance of such documents as lip service. Against that type of nihilism - which, by the way, could be directed at many other programmatic documents - there is little protection except for experience. But the experience is that the concept of autonomous, self organised reform of university teaching has been a fruitful and productive one.


The proof of this claim can be seen in the way the so-called "1968''-movement was digested in the academic context. Initially a radical questioning of "bourgeois'' society by youthful "revolutionaries'', it turned out to be an agent of fruitful change which modernised virtually any university in Wester Europe without really endangering the civil society. This process went by not without frictions. But as far as universities were concerned, they were frictions within the system.19 It was a process which brought about students' and young researchers' participation and sharing of information in realms which formerly were reserved to the illustrious and rare professors.


The "revolutionary'' forces of eLearning can and must be put into a comparable context. Even if it does herald a new didactical age - and the nature of the didactical innovations is still by far not clear - it nevertheless must be experienced as an agent of ferment within the university system. It unfolds its beneficial potentials not by waving the big stick of external "market power'', but by unleashing new creativity and intellectual curiosity in the old humanistic tradition, exemplified by the fundamental principles of the Magna Charta Universitatum. The present volume gives ample proof that the old forces of intellectual excellency, namely creativity and intellectual curiosity, turn readily to eLearning.



6  Summary and Conclusion


The potentials offered by eLearning are indeed a great challenge for present Higher Education systems. But much of the recent debate about this challenge moved in the context of "market power'' and eCommerce. In a remarkable way, public administration often followed this narrowly commercial stance. In the present view as elaborated above, such a perspective does not meet the requirements which society may reasonably see fulfilled by the Higher Education systems. Nor does the apotheosis of eCommerce meet the self-perception of what academic life is about, as is currently exemplified by the Magna Charta Universitatum.


It seems that the guardians of humanistic traditions might well have the upper hand in this debate. We noted some significant rethinking in quarters which by vested interest and former utterances may well be associated with the eCommerce camp. Even - or rather: mostly - in these quarters we now find disassociation from `eLearning-hype'. The eLearning revolution will take off not on the basis of spectacular salesmanship as exemplified by a "21st Century Literacy Summit''. It will take off in Europe if it manages to catch the minds and the creativity in all the sections of the European Higher Education systems - learning, teaching and research. European academic life has shown in the past that it can very well cope with revolutionary challenges. The present volume is a token and a promise that this will also be the case with regard to the "eLearning revolution''. But the genius of revolution has never been seen holding the cornucopia, the symbol of easy affluence. Revolutions do have their price. We appreciate that support is given to those who join the avant garde of this challenging new development.





  [Albright 2002]

Madeleine Albright. Opening Address, Public Policy Panel March 8, 2002. In 21st Century Literacy. AOL Time Warner Foundation and Bertelsmann Foundation, 2002. URL www.21stcenturyliteracy.org/press/press_albright.html.


  [Becker 1993]

Gary S. Becker. Human Capital. A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis with Special Reference to Education. Chicago University Press, Chicago and London, 3rd edition, 1993.


  [Bertelsmann Foundation and AOL Time Warner Foundation 2002a]

Bertelsmann Foundation and AOL Time Warner Foundation. 21st Century Literacy Summit - Program. Berlin, March 7-8 2002a. URL http://www.21stcenturyliteracy.org/program/index.htm.


  [Bertelsmann Foundation and AOL Time Warner Foundation 2002b]

Bertelsmann Foundation and AOL Time Warner Foundation. White Paper: 21St Century Literacy in a Convergent Media World. Bertelsmann Foundation and AOL Time Warner Foundation, Berlin, 2002b. URL http://www.21stcenturyliteracy.org/white/WhitePaperEnglish.pdf.


  [Bertelsmann Stiftung and Heinz Nixdorf Stiftung 2000]

Bertelsmann Stiftung and Heinz Nixdorf Stiftung, editors. Studium online - Hochschulentwicklung durch neue Medien [Studying online - Developing academic institutions through new media]. Verlag Bertelsmann Stiftung, Gütersloh, 2000.


  [Bundesassistentenkonferenz (BAK) 1968]

Bundesassistentenkonferenz (BAK), editor. Kreuznacher Hochschulkonzept - Reformziele der Bundesassistentenkonferenz [The Higher Education Concept [as proposed at the city of Bad] Kreuznach - Aims of University Reform of the Federal Conference of Teaching and Research Assistants], volume 1 of Schriften der Bundsassistentenkonferenz. Bundesassistentenkonferenz, Bonn, 2nd edition, 1968.


  [Council 2002]

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  [Economist [2002] ]

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  [European Ministers of Education 1999]

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  [European Universities 1988]

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  [Ewing 2000]

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  [Glotz 1999]

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  [Glotz 2000]

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  [Grover 2002]

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  [Hamm and Bentlage 2000]

Ingrid Hamm and Ulrike Bentlage. Vorwort [Preface]. In Bertelsmann Stiftung and Heinz Nixdorf Stiftung [2000], pages 7-8.


  [Hamm and Hart 2001]

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  [Liikanen 2002]

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  [Schröder 2002]

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  [Sievert 2002]

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1For further elaboration of this point see the appendix to this contribution.


2Even inside the Bertelsmann Foundation itself there is realisation that such prognoses of the past turned out to be "e-learning-hype'' as Sievert, [2002,p.13], an employee of the foundation, recently conceded.


3The foundation owns more than 50 % of the company's shares. Thus there is an immediate interconnection of economic concerns. The former president of the foundation, Dr. Gunter Thielen, is the current CEO of the Bertelsmann company after the dismissal of the former CEO.


4See Economist [2002], [] for discussion and background of the Enron scandal.


5See, e.g. Grover, [2002] for a discussion of Middelhoffs dismissal and the uncritical megalomania cultivated earlier in this sector.


6See Bertelsmann Foundation and AOL Time Warner Foundation, [2002a] for program details.


7If they could get the Pope to let them commission the writing of an encyclical letter about the benefits of eLiteracy, maybe the organisers of the "21st Century Literacy Summit'' would have surpassed their previous Berlin act of salesmanship. The idea might well appear to be not less outlandish than the "summit'' actually held, since it may be argued that spreading the Gospel is all about communication going with its time's technology. In any case, the dawn of the "printing age'' came with Gutenberg printing the Bibel.


8See footnotes nr.2 and 5.


9See ]Hamm and Hart, [2001,p.10], where, under the heading "Perspektiven des öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunks'' - perspectives of public broadcasting - the authors write: "In der unüberschaubaren Inhalte-Vielfalt des Internet-Zeitalters kann eine neue Aufgabe in der Selektion und Vorauswahl der gesellschaftlich relevanten Inhalte bestehen - ein Paradigmenwechsel vom Inhalteproduzenten zum Orientierung bietenden Informationsagenten ist denkbar.'' The scenario is the one described above in the text.


10The relevant passage reads in the original: "Die Schulen und Lehrer brauchen deshalb die Unterstützung der Medienkonzerne. Deswegen muss gleichberechtigt neben der Verantwortung für den share-holder-value, auch die soziale Verantwortung der Medienunternehmen vor allem für die Ausbildung junger Menschen stehen.


Diese Verantwortung nehmen die Bertelsmann-Stiftung und die AOL Time Warner-Stiftung in besonderer Weise wahr. Beide Stiftungen bereichern die schulische Bildung durch ihr weltweites Engagement.''


11See, e.g.  ]Sievert, [2002] and footnote 2 for the unpredictedly sluggish acceptance of eLearning.


12The German university system was shaped by ideas which Wilhelm von Humboldt (*1767 - +1835) applied and propagated around 1810 when he was cultural minister in the kingdom of Prussia. The societal challenge at that time was the superior military and administrative power of France under Napoleon Bonaparte. It is remarkable that Humboldt responded to these very practical challenges not by asking for more military academies, law schools etc. but by asking for more independence for the universities - in a state which was famous for the autocratic traditions extending back to king Frederick William I of Prussia (*1688 - +1740).


13The literally global impact of Humboldian influence can maybe best appreciated on the campus of Stanford University in California, where the statues of Wilhelm and of his elder brother Alexander, the natural scientist, adorn the entrance to the main building.


14This was a stance of the former Federal Secretary of Higher Education Jürgen Rüttgers (CDU) in the years of 1997 / 1998. His idea was to open the German university for the market economy. It should be noted that Peter Glotz, [1999] (SPD) expressly took exception against that slogan and subscribed to the Humboldtian idea of integrating research and teaching. But as far as marketing was concerned, he does not seem to differ much from Rüttgers.


15See the quote in the introductory section above.


16See footnote 2 above.


17This is a paraphrase of a reverie published by the Bertelsmann Foundation and the Heinz Nixdorf Foundation: The typical student in 2005 "will search the Internet to access information on the courses and degrees available around the world with the help of various online education brokers. This is where he will discover the range of `education products' - most of which are in English.'' etc. []Encarnacao-ua00


18The student jargon puts the dislike of virtual teaching into the saying: "I spend real money for my education - I want real people for it.''


19The creative ferment unleashed by that "revolution'' may well be gathered from the reform proposals formulated by the middle echelon members of the West German universities published by Bundesassistentenkonferenz (BAK), [1968].






Gerhard Michael Ambrosi


Co-ordinator of the Web-Econ Project


Jean Monnet Chair “European Economic Policy”


University of Trier




7. Oct. 2000






ODL/Minerva Projects Meeting


Thursday 27 September 2000


Conclusions from the meeting






Sub-Group „Encouraging European Virtual Universities“


Chairperson: Vivien Hodgson, Lancaster University






The working group took note of the document „eLearning – Designing tomorrow’s education“ (Com(2000)318 final) which was presented by Mrs Maruja Gutierrez-Diaz, DG Education and Culture. The members were also informed about  Speech /00/296 on „Implementation of the eLearning Initiative” by Commissioner Mrs Viviane Reding  which was distributed by e-mail before the meeting. In a session on 27th Sept. we also heard considerations coming from both the „gateway“ project  and a presentation by Daniel Apollon of hypothetical scenarios of future developments in the field of Higher Education.




All the members of the work-group that participated  are involved in some sort of ODL-project dealing with the usage, the administration and the development  by electronic means of learning and  communication. The participants appreciate very much a good infrastructure for electronic communication and they are strongly in favour of  material support for further developments in the field of eLearning. But although the group supported this direction of the eLearning initiative, a number of critical remarks came up during the discussion.




The working group  noted that on the side of the European Commission there is the impression that hitherto there is comparatively little participation of the university sector in the eLearning initiative. Responding  to this impression, it should be stressed that Universities and kindred research institutions in many ways are indispensable protagonists of  exactly those developments which the Commission intends to address in  its initiative. Indeed, the very  foundations of the present „digital revolution“ came from the non-commercial academic sector. Its logic is generally traced to Prof. George Boole (1815-1864) of the University of Cork and to his logic of „true“ and „false“. But in his time his intellectual pursuits seemed to be of absolutely no commercial value. What some university people are wary of today is that some of the very  conditions which enabled eLearning, namely an intellectual climate of  free and commercially dis-interested research, might suffer if  the rest of society took a  too un-critical view about re-shaping Higher Education around the concept of  eLearning. Particular caution was demanded against too strongly  commercially oriented  policies.




It should  be pointed out that not just the distant beginnings of the eLearning age demonstrate the fertility of non-commercial intellectual pursuit. The conception of the WWWeb itself was by no means commerce inspired: The present communication infrastructure of the eLearning world is generally traced to the CERN research institute near Geneva, where the WWW-structure was created in 1989 in order to facilitate exchange of research data (cf. MS-Encarta 2000). Thus, the realm  of universities and of non-commercial research is not trailing behind the eLearning world. The non-commercial academic sector is where it was pioneered and where it was made possible to become particularly fertile. The university sector  now already is one where the potentials  of  electronic media are used with great intensity in electronic discussion groups, through wide-spread usage of electronic means of publication and of communication and in using electronic data storage, retrieval and processing.




The pioneering function which the academic world did, can, and must play for the eLearning society is based on the exchange of „gifts“, not on the selling of contractual services. It is based on mentally gifted persons dedicating their lives to the pursuit of truth and to the questioning of supposedly well-established knowledge. The SOCRATES-Programme of the EU which brings together scholars and students from all over Europe in its name alludes to the ancient Greek philosopher of the same name. The historical Socrates in 399 B.C. chose execution by his enraged fellow Athenians rather than abstaining from questioning the basic  beliefs and the “knowledge basis” of his own society. It was not the prevalent impression of the present working group that the Socratic spirit of persistently questioning the seemingly well established current “knowledge basis” had yet entered the present discussion of the eLearning initiative.




The University representatives of the group almost unanimously lamented the single-mindedness of the eLearning initiative, pursuing exclusively the aim of transmitting supposedly pre-established knowledge. The document „e-Learning – Designing tomorrow’s education“ (COM(2000)318 final) claims to speak for education in Europe in the most general terms. Yet, neither in its objectives (sect. 2) nor in its action plan (sect. 3) does it address the interaction between free research and Higher Education. But it is not just pre-established knowledge which University education is intended to transmit. It is also the implementation of the Socratic spirit of self-inspired research and critical reflection which successful university education takes pride in.




Self-guided research, reflective questioning, and materially dis-interested quest for  truth are aspects of many European traditions of university education. In the working group there was the wide-spread conviction that  these aspects of intellectual life should remain an integral part of Higher Education. Such aims are endangered by a pushing attitude to eLearning and by the already recognizable information overload due to too much uncritical exposure to electronic media. Evaluation of information from a high moral and materially independent standpoint is as much a challenge which must be met in future human societies as is the collection and the dissemination of knowledge. This task of critical evaluation and reflection is traditionally University oriented. The Universities of Europe are still those institutions which are best suited for such a task. In pursuing further  its eLearning initiative, the European Commission should give more credit to these aims and achievements of the European Universities than  it has done hitherto.




In addition to the these more general considerations, the Working Group discussed at  considerable length the concept of   “Virtual Universities”.  It was the representative of the “Benvic” Project (Benchmarking of Virtual Campuses) who brought our attention to the fact that the former concept is a rather infelicitous one. The University as administrative and integrative organization should be of continuing real and not just virtual importance. It is only on the level of Campuses that it seems to be desirable and practicable to break out of the real mould.  We suggest that future usage of terms should stick to the latter concept, i.e. the future agenda of the eLearning initiative in this field should refer just to the term “Virtual Campus”.




The group also discussed a number of more specific issues that were considered to be important in any moves towards virtualisation within higher education. These included;


- the difficulties involved in establishing accreditation procedures and processes for virtual students, particularly, if or when they take courses from Universities in different EU countries.


- the need to re-consider current funding models for financing higher education which are currently based on physical numbers present at an institution.


- the issue of language was also discussed and the possibility of ever reaching the ideal situation of being able to allow students to work primarily in their own language through greatly improved automatic translators.


Michael Ambrosi

University of Trier

with assistance from Vivien Hodgson




Annex: The following topics were explicitly  considered during the session “Virtual Universities”.  They were answered in the Spirit set out in the Report Given above.


1. What will the future universities be? Do we want free virtual universities financed by big multinational companies?


2. Will traditional universities be able to resist competition of new suppliers of learning, or how can they be able to do this?


3. What kind of infrastructures will be necessary to put in place to make European universities competitive in a more and more fragmented and commercialised market for education? (equipment, access, services, skills)


4. What kind of initial and in‑service training will be necessary for university teachers?


5. Which concrete actions, or priorities within the existing programmes can be introduced to encourage virtual universities?


6. What kind of accreditation systems will have to be developed, in order to reach a certain harmonisation at European level and encourage mobility of students and personnel?







Assessment and Benchmarking


7. One important aspect of eEurope and eLearning is to introduce the idea of quantitative and qualitative "benchmarking".


8. Which quantitative data would be used in order to benchmark the evolution of the virtual dimension within higher education?


9. What can be done to create better visibility of best practice?