Interactive University, the Edinburgh-based world leader in e-learning, is targeting the English A-level market as part of plans to double its size in the next 18 months.
The spin-off from Heriot-Watt University, funded by Scottish Enterprise and headed by technology entrepreneur and investor David Farquhar, last week signed up its first education partner in Africa. In its first full year in 2003 it signed up 80,000 students in 20 countries, including deals worth £6m in Hong Kong and £5m in China, and it sees a huge opportunity in the Middle East and south-east Asia.
The IU's latest partner, a training and development agency in Zambia, will market Heriot-Watt's management programme and Stirling University's MBA.
The IU's mission is to 'maximise the international distribution of Scottish education', and its degree level awards are made by Scottish universities, not the IU.
However, it is in England that Farquhar hopes to net his next batch of users of the core Scholar programme, created by Heriot-Watt to support secondary school learning for Highers, Advanced Highers and A levels.
Farquhar says he hopes to double within 18 months the number of users of Scholar, already the biggest programme of its kind in the world.
Scholar, piloted in four schools only three years ago, now has 100% take-up by local authorities in Scotland and 59,000 registered users, two-thirds of them active. That includes 2000 teachers in Malaysia. The figures are impressive: 40,000 online learning hours delivered every hour of the school day or four-and-a-half million hours a year, using e-learning materials consisting of 44,600 web pages and generating seven tonnes of support materials a year. Average subject pass rates have increased by 10% with Scholar use, and a third of study time takes place after school, usually during prime television time.
Farquhar's Idesta start-up, which pioneered mobile software, was one of Scotland's most promising technology ventures until grounded by the sector's funding crisis in 2002 after only 12 months. He took over as chief operating officer of IU at the invitation of its chairman, Ian Ritchie.
Farquhar said of Scholar: 'We have to demonstrate it can work profitably outwith Scotland, because that drives export revenue for Heriot-Watt which takes a royalty from all sales.' All profits are reinvested into working capital and programme development, and since Farquhar's arrival some £1m of costs have been stripped out.
Farquhar now chairs Calico Jack, an early stage Dundee University spin-out which brings 'intelligent agents' into mobile software. That in turn conjures up the vision of 'pervasive learning', says Farquhar: 'Why should the pupil not be able to replace his jotter with an electronic device, and receive information through an ATM or his TV?' He has been invited to talk about it to 30 leading educationalists at a Microsoft symposium in Seattle, Washington, this week.
SIMON BAIN January 26 2004