e-Learning in Poland: experiences from higher education
Polish higher education e-learning is developing but is still at an early stage, although there are a lot of initiatives flourishing.
Three years have passed since The Academy of Humanities and Economics in Lodz (AHE) and Maria Sklodowska Curie University in Lublin (UMCS) joined their e-learning forces and started Polish Virtual University (PVU) as a common unit and project. The main aim of the project was to build necessary resources which could enable both institutions to provide online studies and courses.
During this time I have been managing the project on behalf of the AHE and as a Vice Chancellor for Information Systems at the AHE I was responsible for the use of PVU platform at the academy. We built a group of highly specialized professionals who work on methodology of on-line teaching, produce e-learning courses based on content provided by academic teachers, and train them how to teach via the Internet, as well as provide all necessary technical and organizational services. At the moment the AHE offers undergraduate online studies in 4 departments and more than 750 students study this way. More then 100 e-courses are available and used as a support for traditional teaching or offered as separated courses on the Internet.
My personal experience as well as my observations of the other projects and situation in the environment illustrate the state of e-learning in Polish higher education. It is necessary to mention that my observations are made from a higher education institution executive perspective. My responsibility is to successfully introduce e-learning into the academy operations and prove the benefits it brings. These benefits relay on advantages which e-learning brings to other stakeholders, especially students and academy teachers, however their observations might be different from mine.
Before discussing e-learning in Poland it is necessary to clarify what this concept means. There are many definitions, however the one which I like best and which we use in our team is given by Marc Rosenberg in his book “E-learning” (McGraw-Hill, 2001). He says that e-learning is the use of Internet technologies to deliver solutions that enhance knowledge and performance provided the following three criteria are met:
- it is networked,
- it is delivered via computer using standard Internet technologies,
- it focuses on the broadest view of learning.
In order to start online studies and courses we have had to overcome several obstacles, which in my opinion still exist. The most important problem is the position of education at Polish universities and the way students are taught. Teaching is much less valued in Polish higher education than research. The position and career depends on research degree acquired and the number of publications and research done, while teaching is something what ‘should be done’.
Good teachers are sometimes rewarded by students’ associations or university authorities but their value is mostly prestigious and does not count to promotion at an institution. This is one of the reasons why university teaching, taking into consideration didactic methods used, is very poor. The dominating model is teacher-centered with a professor “broadcasting” information to students whose role is very passive. This way of teaching is not suitable for e-learning at all and our instructional designers have to make a lot of effort to make the course authors and instructors think in a student-centered way.
There is also a question how resistant teachers are to instructions and advice given by e-course production team members who are often much younger and of course not familiar with the course content. Another problem is the amount of work which course author must put into content preparation. It is often not less than to write a text book, as along with the contents, author has to design exercises, tasks, projects, tests and other activities. However the compensation for such work is very rare at Polish universities and what is worse even very good e-learning course is a less valued publication than a traditional paper book with the same contents.
Another issue is the level of computer literacy in the Polish academic society, which is low just like among the rest of the society. It is an important barrier preventing e-learning courses creation and teaching using the Internet and other information technologies. When we add university teachers’ preference for individual work rather than project based team work, we get the whole picture of obstacles influencing teaching in the field of Polish higher education, which, I think is the most important in implementing e-learning. To overcome them our university teachers should improve their didactic and computer skills, but most important is that they should be motivated to do it by institution executives and by the changes to be introduced in the academic career system.
Another group of existing obstacles to be overcome concern law. E-learning exists neither in the Polish Higher Education Act nor in the Ministry of Education decrees and institutions which offer online studies formally rate them among part-time or extramural systems. This may result in a students’ confusion and also contributes to e-learning being hindered by the system while compared to traditional face-to-face learning.
The more important consequence however is that there are no official standards which State Accreditation Committee (SAC) could apply to evaluate e-learning classes in order to grant accreditation. Our online studies at the AHE were controlled by a team of SAC experts whose assessment was very high, but based on, as they admitted, their individual opinions of what we are doing. What if we run into someone who rejects e-learning at all? There are still many of them in the Polish academic world. The lack of standards does not eliminate bad practices which also slows down e-learning development. Thanks to a few successful projects there are good practices of e-learning in Polish higher education which may be used by newcomers. State regulations our parliament work on now should lead to online learning finding its place in the higher education system.
Like everywhere else there is a problem in Poland with intellectual property. I am not so much concerned about e-courses unauthorized use, as the law clearly protects them in this respect. The most important obstacle in my opinion, is the question of citations in e-learning materials. When a teacher plays a piece of a song during the lecture to illustrate its content it is legal, as the song is used for educational purpose. What if the same piece is used in an e-course whose use is also educational? This problem does not have an unambiguous solution and may create very important legal barrier for e-learning development, especially if course producers will have to buy licenses for every single citation used. Many universities also face problem of the property of e-course content – if it belongs to the institution or, at least partially, to the content author. Today, when e-learning is a reality the contracts between universities and their teachers should clearly address this issue.
When all the above mentioned obstacles are overcome, we come to money. e-Learning requires significant investments in technical infrastructure and content creation and the return appears in a long run. Polish higher education institutions do not have enough financial means to introduce e-learning on a large scale and the state support is not sufficient in this area. Additionally, the before mentioned obstacles are created by the institutions which do invest in their educational facilities to finance other projects than online courses or studies. There is a big hope that Poland and its universities will benefit from European Union funds designated for e-learning.
All the above considerations concern institutions which want to develop e-learning infrastructure and platforms and have to answer the question “What obstacle should be overcome for us to be able to offer online studies or courses?” There is however the question if there are potential customers who will be willing and able to use this offer. This is the problem of e-learning readiness in Poland and it mainly concentrates around the use of Internet. According to the research conducted in the middle of 2004, 33% of Polish population used the Internet, however only 54% of them did it at home. This number is confirmed by the data quoted in Social Diagnosis 2003. Conditions and quality of living in Poland” report which announced that 30% of Polish households had computers and half of them were connected to the Internet. Computers and the Internet penetration very much relay on the size of town and is biggest in ones of over 500,000 citizens and the lowest in villages. In the same report only 10% Poles declared full computer literacy.
According to other research they use the Internet mainly for web surfing, email communication and instant messaging but less than 20% of the users are familiar with services like e-banking or e-shopping. Dial-up access dominates in Polish households and the access cost linked to monthly average salary equals 3.13% which is a relatively high value while compared to more developed European countries like Germany (0.57%) or UK (1.01%).
Summarizing, Poland is at an early stage of the Internet development – its penetration is limited, access is slow, cost is relatively high and awareness of its use is still poor. Polish Internet user is a young person who is well-educated, lives in a town and whose income is over country-average. For e-learning it means that the demand for this type of educational service is still limited and it has not reached yet the social groups which do not have access to traditional higher education and might benefit from e-learning the most. This is also probably the reason why, apart from a few exceptions, world known companies offering e-learning courses and platforms are not present on the Polish market on a large scale. Most of their offer is not localized for Poland and they do not provide enough support services.
Despite obstacles and country poor readiness there are institutions which decided to start e-learning projects and succeeded. I have already mentioned AHE and PVU which is the biggest online study project in Polish higher education. Another remarkable player is Warsaw University of Technology which developed the project OKNO – the first one among Polish universities – and provides online undergraduate studies in computer science as well as several postgraduate studies. Warsaw University created a unit Center for Open and Multimedia Education (COME UW) which works on different aspects of e-learning and provides online postgraduate studies and courses. Remarkable achievements have also two private institutions – Polish Japanese Institute of Information Technology which offers undergraduate on-line studies in computer science and WSB-NLU College in Nowy Sacz with master degree online studies in management and marketing. There are also several projects in which e-learning is used to enrich traditional teaching especially for part-time students.
Here public Warsaw School of Economics (Szkola Glówna Handlowa w Warszawie) with its e-sgh Initiative and private Poznan School of Banking should be mentioned. These institutions, thanks to decisions made by their executives and devotion of people engaged in the projects, were able to overcome the problems and proved that e-learning could be of good value.
My conclusion is that in Polish higher education e-learning is developing but is still at an early stage and institutions intending to implement it still face many problems. In case of successful projects it is important to remember that their results were achieved with practically no support from the state which have not realized any e-learning strategy or plan in the last few years. The winning initiatives are the realization of individual institutions policies and result from ideas, entrepreneurship, motivation and hard work of teams created by these institutions to bring online education into existence.
In the last months however the situation in the legal and ‘political’ environment is improving. Outside higher education there are also several good e-learning practices, e.g. free knowledge portal in economy created by Polish National Bank. A few Polish companies (e.g. YDP Poland) offer very high quality e-education products and export them. Last year PVU team in the AHE has prepared the e-learning concept and strategy for Mobile Centers of Vocational Information established by Polish Voluntary Work Corps which is going to be realized in the coming years. These are all good signs for the future which make me optimistic about the prospects of e-learning in Poland.
The paper summarizes the author's presentation “E-learning in Poland. Present Day and Future Perspectives” given at Online Educa 2004 in Berlin.