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Lifelong learning has become an imperative for people living in the 21st century. This CDTL Brief on Lifelong Learning discusses various issues on the subject and why it is a necessity for self-preservation and survival.

August 2005, Vol. 8, No. 5 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Lifelong Learning and the Virtual University
Associate Professor Daphne Pan
Director, CDTL

Learning did not begin at school and it should not end there. Living in the twenty-first century requires us to constantly update our knowledge and develop new skills to keep up with a rapidly changing environment. Universities are beginning to recognise that lifelong learning is not merely a buzz word. It is, in fact, a global imperative. With knowledge now reportedly doubling in less than two years, the necessity of knowledge-upgrading has become a truth universally acknowledged.

"The University Won't Survive"

In an interview with Forbes, Peter F. Drucker said:

Thirty years from now, the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won't survive. .Already we are beginning to deliver more lectures and classes off-campus via satellite or two-way video at a fraction of the cost. The college won't survive as a residential institution. (Kenzer & Johnson, 1997)

Drucker's pronouncement has yet to be realised and may never be. The traditional university will most likely continue to exist, partly because it is able to adapt and change, and partly because the on-campus learning experience-the opportunities for face to face intellectual and social interactions, the stimulation of a research-intensive environment, the strong sense of scholarly tradition and community-cannot really be replaced. However, there is no denying that over the last couple of decades, technological learning solutions have evolved to a level of sophistication that has made possible the creation of virtual universities. The technology today enables effective electronic delivery and interactive communication, providing both synchronous and asynchronous learning options, multimedia-rich content, user-friendly applications and presentation tools, as well as a wealth of e-resources offering much enhanced options for teaching and learning. In addition, the growth in Internet access, speed and robustness has been phenomenal. In spite of complaints against 'traffic jams' on the information superhighway, sliding costs as well as increasing accessibility and IT literacy have enabled technology to make an immense impact on education.

Studies suggest that appropriate use of IT can deliver quality learning experience, offer more flexibility, and enhance contact with teacher and peers even in large classes, thus allowing more time spent on learning with more than credible outcomes (students' performance measured by grades is comparable or sometimes even better, and the learning is deeper than traditional teaching methods). Perhaps what is most significant is that learners report acquiring the ability to learn independently and beyond formal classroom structure. It may be worth noting that in 1999, Britain's Higher Education Funding Council ranked the Open University 11 out of 98 schools in terms of quality of teaching and awarded its technology department full marks for the quality of its general engineering courses (Grose, 1999).

e-Learning: The Lessons Learnt

Not surprisingly then, most institutions today have adopted technology-mediated learning to varying extents, though there is now less of the 'hype' and vast claims of the era. Lessons have been learnt, among which are the following:

  • technology has introduced many new tools; not all are equal

  • purely virtual classrooms and click-and-drag curricula have not delivered their promise

  • a hybrid model-face-to-face and online-works better than an exclusively e-based pedagogy, and is arguably "the most significant unacknowledged trends in higher education"1

  • e-learning should be used to do what traditional teaching cannot achieve or cannot do as well (e.g. asynchronous learning, simulations, 'drilling') rather than replace traditional teaching methods

  • 'chunking' produces a more useable product (i.e. small, stand-alone units rather than whole course/ programmes)

  • developing e-learning materials is costly and manpower-intensive and 'specialisation' and economies of scale are necessary for sustainability

  • e-learning creates different values for different learners and purposes

These points suggest that while technology-mediated learning is useful in traditional higher education, perhaps its greater value and 'return on investment' is in lifelong learning, particularly where more formal, continuing professional education is concerned, rather than that pursued for general interest or enrichment. Non-formal education generally involves learners who are working adults, have limited time but are fairly highly motivated and self-driven. An asynchronous learning network with its 'any time/place/pace' learning would therefore better accommodate their schedule. Also, while this group needs to refresh their skills and knowledge continuously, the upgrades are usually done in instalments. 'Chunking' caters to this by providing manageable, just-in-time learning with high degree of relevance and perceived usefulness- all of which are factors motivating adult learners. Further motivation and stimulation will be provided with a 'hybrid' system that offers them some of the structure and stimulus of face-to-face (virtual or real) learning. Satellite and video-conference technology now offer virtually synchronous learning and group interaction. Together with these, the incentive of proper certification will remediate the problem of relatively low success rate of distance/self-learning resulting from heavy dependence on self-discipline and will power. This translates into clear advantages not just for individuals but also for their employers; e-learning and e-training will optimise effort and reduce cost and work disruption.

The Virtual University for Lifelong Learning

Again, not surprisingly, as the 'market' for continuing education grows and technology continues to improve, virtual universities have materialised. Generally, new players have not fared well largely because start-up costs are high-NYUOnline spent US$25 million developing seven courses-and the return on investment (ROI) dictates a very focused range of offering and scalability which requires a sizeable demand new players are unable to attract without the benefits of the traditional campus and, perhaps more critically, the 'branding' (e.g. MIT allows open access to its course materials but maintains that that is not what differentiates an MIT education). Established institutions, however, have found it a logical and positive extension of their main business. Harvard, for instance, has made the shift:

The long-standing rule requiring Harvard degree recipients to spend at least one year on campus has been revised. Many in the business of higher education are asking whether giving the green light to a degree-granting distance learning program at the oldest institution of higher learning in the U.S. marks a sea change in the field of online education. (DiSalvio, 2003)

Several departments at Stanford (e.g. Biomedical Informatics, Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Management Science and Engineering) now offer Master's degrees, some entirely online and some 'hybrid', while its Center for Professional Development offers a range of short courses in various distance learning formats. Oxford offers a Master's in International Human Rights Law, University of British Columbia has a number of certificated programmes, as do many other 'mainstream' institutions.

Catering to lifelong learning via e-learning is becoming a global phenomenon. Perhaps the best its flexible delivery-on campus, online, or both-it has grown from its inception in 1989 to become "the largest accredited university in the U.S., with more than 17,000 highly qualified instructors, 163 campuses, and Internet delivery worldwide".2 Drexel University, one of the top 50 private, national doctoral/ research universities, has also formed a subsidiary: Drexel e-Learning.

Likewise, NUS, as part of the consortium of Universitas 21 institutions, has bought into an accredited online university: Universitas 21 Global. Its SMA (Singapore-MIT Alliance) programme-a contact-intensive, partly by distance education and partly by research initiative-which was set up in 1998 has proven to be rewarding. With various other programmes and courses modeled on a similar format in place, NUS is well-positioned-in terms of technology, infrastructure and expertise-to provide technology-mediated learning, not only for on-campus instruction but also-and perhaps now more aggressively-for both formal and informal distance education. As a global knowledge enterprise with a mission to 'advance knowledge and foster innovation. In service of country and society', continuing to build an effective lifelong learning system that supports the continuous upgrading of the workforce should be a part of its agenda.


DiSalvio, P. (2003). 'Harvard Online: Paradigm Shift, or Business as Usual?-Controversy'. Professional Media Group LLC. is_6_6/ai_ 103378402. (Last accessed: 1 August 2005).

Grose, T.K. (1999). 'Distance Education the UK Way: Great Britain's decades-old Open University gets Particularly High Marks for its Engineering Courses' Prism Magazine. American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). http://www.prism-magazine. org/nov99/html/distance.htm. (Last accessed: 1 August 2005).

Kenzner, R. & Johnson, S. (1997). 'Seeing Things As They Really Are'. Forbes, 10 March, Vol. 159, No. 5, pp. 126-127.


1. Speech by the President of Pennsylvania State University, Graham B.
Spanier. ‘Higher Education’s Biggest Unrecognized Opportunities’ delivered on 14 January 2001 at the Turnbull Center, Florida State University. (Last accessed: 12 August 2005).

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2. U.S. Journal of Academics: (2005). ‘University of Phoenix: Education for a Global Community’. (Last accessed: 12 August 2005).

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