E-Learning: The Digitalization of Swedish Higher Education

By West, Charlotte | International Educator, September/October 2007 | Go to article overview

E-Learning: The Digitalization of Swedish Higher Education


West, Charlotte, International Educator


Thanks to state-of-the-art ICT infrastructure and innovative public policies, Swedish higher education is going digital.

THE 878 MILES between Kiruna, a town almost 100 miles above the Arctic Cirde in northern Sweden, and Malmö, Sweden's third largest city situated across the Oresund Sound from Copenhagen, has gotten a whole lot shorter thanks to state-of-the-art information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure and innovative public policies promoting IT-based distance education.

The number of students enrolled in distance education in Sweden almost tripled between 1996-97 and 2005-06, mushrooming from 28,400 to 82,300. Almost one in five Swedish students participates in online courses, according to Statistics Sweden.

The establishment of Sweden's Net University (Nätuniversitetet) in 2002 provided the momentum for the upsurge. The Net University is a consortium of 35 Swedish colleges and universities and currently offers more than 2,700 online courses and degree programs. Well over two-thirds of students participating in online courses during the 2005-06 academic year were enrolled via the Net University.

The e-learning uptake within higher education is not surprising given that Sweden has one of the world's most advanced ICT infrastructures. Eurostat estimates that 77 percent of households had a broadband connection and 96 percent of households had internet access in 2006. Along with its Nordic neighbors and the Netherlands, Sweden also has one of the highest broadband penetration rates in the European Union (EU). In addition, 80 percent of Swedes-more than in any other EU country-reported using the Internet regularly.

In 2003 the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Sweden number one in an "e-readiness" index that analyzed the conditions for Internet-based learning in the world's 60 largest economies. The report highlighted that "Internet-based training is common within government agencies" and that "the government is continuing to develop laws and strategies to expand the role of e-learning within its offices and the public education system."

Public Policies Promoting IT-based Learning

Distance education has a long tradition in Sweden, as well as in the other Nordic countries. In the early 1900s, correspon dence courses were important, especially in rural areas. For instance, in relation to the rapid industrialization of the country in the early twentieth century, engineers with work experience but no formal education could obtain their degree via post.

In the last 20 years, traditional correspondence courses have been adapted to an online environment. In 1998 die Swedish government passed a bill known as "The Open University," which aimed at broadening access to higher education via distance learning. IT was seen as one tool for increasing enrollment and reaching students who otherwise might choose not to study. The Swedish Agency for Distance Education (DISTUM) was founded in 1999 to promote the development of IT-based education. After several organizational reforms, the responsibilities of DISTUM were assumed by the Swedish Agency for Networks and Cooperation in Higher Education (NSHU) in 2006.

"Our Organization has three main tasks: widening participation in higher education, pedagogical development, and IT-supported distance learning. We see these three tasks as more or less one in the same. They are very closely intertwined. You need pedagogical development if you want to increase access to higher education, and IT-supported distance education is one way to do that," says Per Westman, NSHU senior adviser.

Between 2002 and 2004, the Swedish government provided almost SEK 500m (more than $50 million [U.S. dollars]) in support to Swedish colleges and universities to help them develop their IT-based distance learning. Universities used this money to design courses, develop curriculum, and establish the necessary IT infrastructure and support. …

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