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U21 Global: e-learning in the right direction

By Murray Bourne, 20 Apr 2007

I really enjoyed an afternoon at U21 Global's Singapore headquarters recently.

U21 Global is a joint offering between Universitas 21 (a consortium of 19 high profile world-wide universities) and Thomson Learning (the publishers).

U21 conducts post-graduate courses delivered solely online. Their offerings include an MBA, Masters in IT Management and professional diplomas.

They based themselves in Singapore because:

"...the perception is that South and East Asia is the centre of worldwide e-learning action".

[Well, I agree there is a lot of potential for e-learning in SE Asia...]

Jeremy Williams (Dean, Corporate Programmes & Director of Research) gave us an overview of what U21 Global is all about. I especially liked the learner-centred approach taken by Williams and I agree with his mantra that educators are no longer in the business of creating and pushing out content (since there is already an avalanche out there). Rather, our role is to design educational experiences and to facilitate the learning process.

Some things that struck me about the U21 outlook:

Quality control is paramount

  • Content is written by academics from consortium institutions (Is there a disconnect here? Didn't I just say there is no need to create any more content?)
  • There is a blind review of the content
  • The Learning Design team in Singapore creates the "e-" portion of U21 courses
  • All materials are reviewed by U21 Pedagogica
  • The process of creating each new 12-week course takes between 9 and 12 months and costs up to US$200K.
  • Enrollment is from 20 to 40 students for each class


  • Students must evaluate each course (otherwise they don't get their degree)
  • Facilitators must evaluate each course they conduct (otherwise, they don't get paid)


Williams was proud of the recognition that U21 already has, and is expected to achieve soon:

  • EFMD's (European Foundation for Management Development) CEL (Certification of e-Learning)
  • The pre-candidacy phase with AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International)

Learning Philosophy

Learning at U21 is claimed to be:

  • Situated
  • Constructive
  • Supported
  • Communicative and collaborative
  • Have frequent formative evaluation
  • Based on active learning principles

They claimed that the online lessons have a balance of:

  • Reading
  • Reflection
  • Discussion
  • Practice
  • Projects
  • Assignments

If this is indeed the case, then it is a refreshing development. Actually, it doesn't matter if the learning is on online or off, the above principles should be followed.

[At this point I was going to suggest that you go to the Demo on their site (under "Learning" menu), but the Flash file does not behave at all well in both Firefox and IE. I managed to see the demo on a publicity CD. This incident makes me wonder about the quality of their online offerings...]


There is always a worry with online courses that the assessment system may be abused. At U21, they have Open book, open Web exams.

The students download the assessment and the clock starts ticking. They have 24 hours to complete the task and then submit it to the examiner.

Since it is open book and open Web, the assessment is less about memorising and more about understanding and problem solving.

The inevitable question arose from one of the visitors:

How does U21 know the students won't cheat? Won't they just get their friend to do it?

Williams responded by saying that by the time of the examination, the facilitators already have a good sense of the abilities, writing style and approach for each student. It is clear if someone else is doing the work.

Students need to complete authentic, real world assessments. Apart from giving their learning more meaning, this increases the chance that students can transfer their learning and I'm all for it.

Assessment components:
Students complete assignments and projects worth 35%:

  • 1 individual assignment
  • 1 team assignment
  • 1 project

Discussion has a very high weighting at 40%. This sends a very clear message that collaborative learning is very important in U21 courses.

The final exam is the remaining 25% of the assessment. (This is the open book, open Web exam mentioned earlier. Students must pass it to pass the course. We did not have enough time to talk about what "pass" means.)

At U21 there is a low 5% attrition rate. This is quite remarkable for any post-graduate course and quite something for an online offering.

Future Directions

U21 is moving into:

  • Blogging
  • Video blogging
  • Podcasts
  • Webinars
  • Elluminate conferencing (which they like better than Interwise)
  • Reducing reliance on WebCt and increasing the use of blogs and wikis


U21's faculty is drawn from all over the world. They are facilitators - none of them deliver a stand-up lecture.

They have a Faculty Training Programme - which facilitators must pass, otherwise there is no job. Once again, we didn't have time to talk about what "pass" means and how it is determined.

Williams finished with an apt quote from Albert Einstein:

I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.

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