'British higher education cannot take the chance that technology is simply another passing fad'

February 7, 2003

The high-profile proposals in last month’s long-awaited white paper related to traditional face-to-face higher education. But dotted through its 100 pages was a recognition of the growing role played by new technology. E-universities might not have taken off with quite the speed envisaged by dotcom pioneers, but the internet and computerised teaching packages have become an accepted part of the academic’s armoury in all types of institution. So much so, indeed, that the drafters of the white paper were content to treat e-learning as a natural part of the scene, rather than parcelling it off into a separate section.

When ministers talk about diversity of mission in higher education, for example, they refer partly to collaboration between institutions in both teaching and research. They expect the substantial increases in capital funding to be spent on new equipment to facilitate such schemes.

The white paper identifies the quality of IT provision as one of the key areas to be covered in new student satisfaction surveys, and it encourages growth in e-learning as one of the ways to cater for new types of student. Coventry University’s online learning environment, which offers students support resources and discussion areas, is singled out as a model.

This supplement demonstrates that there are plenty of options for universities to consider. Some virtual learning environments (VLEs) already provide audiovisual material, for example, as well as text facilities. Barbara Hull points out that a VLE offers students a very different learning experience from face-to-face lectures and tutorials. While most institutions look to technology to enhance traditional modes of delivery, investments of time and money will be wasted if students lack the confidence to use a VLE or prefer conventional resources.

It is far from certain that students will log on regularly just because a VLE is available on the intranet. As Allison Littlejohn’s research has found (pages 8 and 9), first-year students are more likely than not to be web-savvy, but only a handful expect technology to play a key role in their learning.

This leaves cash-strapped universities with a dilemma. Do they sit back and wait until a VLE becomes a necessity rather than a luxury or take the plunge and invest in a system that may not be properly utilised?

Nottingham University vice-chancellor Sir Colin Campbell believes portals - “personalised” websites - and e-learning in general are fast becoming expected by students. But how many applicants allow their choice of campus to be influenced by the presence or absence of e-learning technology?

In the new era of higher education heralded by the white paper, most universities will feel that they cannot afford to wait for public awareness to catch up. If they do not make the running on e-learning, private providers may fill the gap, as some have in the US. With tuition fees, crumbling infrastructure and academic pay all more pressing issues, Steve Molyneux is right to question the UK’s e-learning preparedness.

If British higher education wants to maintain its global reputation, it cannot take the chance that technology is simply another passing fad.

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