Teachers take a cue from Taco

The Digital University
April 2, 1999

Is the university on its way to technological redundancy? The crowd of contributors to this volume would not have us think so, though they point the way towards a substantial transformation. As is the case when new technology makes its entry into a fresh sphere, it causes all the basic questions to be asked again. What does a university do? What does it teach? Why do people have to gather together to be taught? What does the process of teaching consist of? What can the new devices do to resolve the deadlocks in the system as traditionally conceived?

The reader will certainly be helped towards his or her own response to such issues, but the book does not really make much headway with them. In fact, its authors infuriatingly shy away from any consideration of the role of the university as an institution through which society forms itself. They look at a variety of experimental and introductory usages of internet and intranet around UK universities and colleges and report on how they work.

The Dearing report argued the importance of adopting suitable strategies for employing communications and information technology, at national and local levels. Moreover, as the number of students grows and as distance learning becomes the necessary means of reaching them all, it becomes increasingly urgent for institutions to work collaboratively and, to use this book's favoured term, "asynchronously", to get the best results for the largest number of students. About a dozen of Dearing's recommendations refer to this. He foresaw considerable cost benefits from information technology, but complained that its full potential in the managing of academic institutions as well as in teaching and research was far from being realised.

This book is a multi-authored collaborative primer on methods and techniques for using IT as a substitute for face-to-face learning. It could well have been titled De-inventing the Academy . For, using the Dearing report as its starting point, it shows us, in prime jargon-reinforced prose, how to replace many aspects of the university as we know it. The authors accept that the physical and simultaneous presence of students and instructors within campuses is likely to continue and to remain the best means for learning most things. The growing demand for distance-learning, however, means that much has to be done to develop new substitutive tools and methods. This applies just as much to research and to university administrations that still rely, wastefully and confusingly, on paper. Marginal increases in efficiency per employee or per student could lead to massive savings.

"We aim to show throughout this book that there is a significant role for asynchronous collaboration within higher education institutions." By this, the authors mean e-mail, the World Wide Web and a variety of other new "groupware" tools and products that are enabling people to work together though not at the same time. Note that video-conferencing, for example, is a synchronous technique and a collaborative one. It does not fit into the category of collaborative asynchronicity, which the book is all about.

The writers, however, implicitly accept that a substantial element of teacher-pupil contact will transfer to electronic means. So profuse are those means, and so proliferating the experiments, that no clear pattern can be found among the many approaches discussed.

Some of the implications are ominous, and one can detect a certain half-veiled authoritarianism in some of the conclusions. Take the example of the experience of three universities (Keele, Durham and UMIST) in developing groupware usable by all three. They report: "Lecturers must be willing to accept a different, more equal relationship with students... Social protocols for group behaviour... will need to be developed. Students need to be motivated to use the technology, for example, by making its use part of the assessed coursework... Existing person-to-person collaboration skills do not necessarily transfer." It all suggests a new wave of discriminatory pressures on instructors.

Every new way of working requires its own disciplines and constraints, collaborative asynchronous teaching more than most. The mechanisation of teaching will prove to be very demanding in this respect, if some of these experiments are anything to go by. Teaching and Coursework on Line (Taco), for example, provides through the web a system for authoring and delivering coursework, until now the most human of pedagogical activities. Lecturers choose from a range of question types and marking schemes and decide on weightings and confidence assessments. They can still add their own comments to their marking and integrate their other (online) teaching materials with the course system. One can see how, gradually, the adoption of these systems will push live teaching into the background, how institutions will be able to share teachers and teaching materials. Though face-to-face encounters will somehow survive, the whole management of teaching, especially for more mature students, could pass through (perhaps ultimately into) a mechanised mode. I expect people will come to say how much better it is, while real teaching, where it continues to go on, will be castigated as unacceptably old-fashioned and, paradoxically, become even more privileged and expensive. We are seeing the beginning of the "elitisation" of hand-made education - and that in an era when people affect to despise elites, demand that they justify themselves upon impossible criteria and deeply envy them.

The idea that the education of young adults should be founded on encounters with cadres of highly trained and strongly motivated intellectuals will die hard. But its erosion has started - as surely as the computer swallowed up the printers, the most ancient of craftworkers, in a matter of a single generation, as surely as it downgraded bank-workers and shopkeepers. One might say that higher education is confronting its version of the spinning jenny.

Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, Oxford.

The Digital University: Reinventing the Academy

Editor - Reza Hazemi, Stephen Hailes and Steve Wilbur
ISBN - 1 85233 003 1
Publisher - Springer
Price - £29.50
Pages - 307

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