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HELP - Henley Extended Learning Platform

by Matty Smith published Jul 15, 2008 04:15 PM, last modified Apr 05, 2011 10:05 PM
Early use of dial-up connectivity to support distance learning students at Henly Management College

In 1988, four years after launching our International Distance Learning MBA, Henley Management College decided to provide additional support for programme members via computer networks. The programme was delivered through traditional 'learning through dissemination' mode i.e. distribution of printed materials, including formative assessment activities and summative assessment assignments. Programme members could attend intermittent, face-to-face workshops held at the College in the UK or at one of our International Centres around the world.

In developing the computer network we used a server located in London and linked to the Internet (not the World Wide Web as that had not emerged). To access this server users had to dial in using a standard land line telephone - for those in the UK this was perhaps more straightforward (and cheaper) than for those overseas. Once in the system users had access to a number of text based forums into which messages were typed by programme members and (ideally) responded to by tutors. There was no media available other than text and nor was file sharing possible. The users of the system, called HELP (Henley Extended Learning Platform but more ususally used as an expression of panic by the users themselves), were predominantly those working in the IT sector, including the academics. Getting into the system was a major technical effort. Very few users had personal computers at that time and so mostly work-based machines were used. On the plus side, company firewalls were either fairly weak or non-existent at that time. The College provided no 'help desk', in the common sense of the word, and most users made one or two attempts before abandoning the system altogether.

The motivation to move towards what we now call 'e-learning', as a means of supporting a distance education programme came out of the College's well developed learning principle of group learning, represented by what was called the Syndicate Method. In initiating HELP, the College was seeking to extend the notion of collaborative group working into a distance education programme.

Lessons learnt

The problems encountered in setting up HELP undoubtedly informed subsequent developments in the use of learning technology within the College. Key lessons around technical barrriers to access, diversity and richness of materials being offered and the need to re-educate academic facilitators began with this very early experience of e-learning. HELP was the first experience the College had of the potential impact technology might have on taking the 'distance' out of distance learning and it undoubtedly shaped our approach towards how subsequent developments around the use of technology were progressed leading to the current situation where technology is seen as a 'given' in terms of the high-level connectedness between institution, learners and tutors.