Drowning in marking and time for a sea change

June 9, 1995

What do you call 500 computers at the bottom of the ocean? Most academics would say: "a damned good start!". That is understandable. They have quite enough on their plates without having to worry about new technology. The relationship between information technology and the academic way of life is an interesting one and I've never understood why the phrase "may you live in interesting times" should be a curse. Times are certainly interesting and they're certainly busy: lecturers are far too busy to take courses on time-management, for example.

Let us check out the real Don's Diary at this time of year: lecturing, marking, research, marking, publishing, marking, setting exam questions, marking, invigilating, marking, grantspersonship, marking, dissertation supervision, marking, teaching quality assessment, marking, administrative committees, marking, UCAS, marking, staff-development courses, marking, modifying lectures to extract political incorrectness, marking, modifying modified politically correct lecturers to add some content, marking, keeping the CV current. Oh, and marking. Maybe even catching up on the literature (rare, but it happens).

So it's not surprising, then, that when asked why they have not fallen for all the educational hypermedia hype, most academics will say they have not got the time. QED. That, of course, is the perfect excuse - sorry, reason - which no one can reasonably challenge. But too many heads of department have not got the time realistically to assess colleagues' workloads because they too have their share of lecturing, marking, research, marking, publishing, marking. . . You get the picture.

Conscious of the intolerable strains on lecturers, HE funding bodies have spent considerable sums to try and harness the power of IT to make life easier. This merely reflects the overall purpose of the 20th century, which seems to exist solely to enable us to adapt hi-tech solutions to everyday problems.

Nationally-funded courseware development in the last decade has cost a pretty penny. The first phase of the Computers in Teaching Initiative (1985-89) cost Pounds 9.5 million in direct grants, with probably as much again in value-added time and services.

Funding 75 projects in the funding councils' Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP) will probably cost some Pounds 33 million over four years. One hopes, and may indeed even expect, that direct spin-offs will amount to more than a TLTP equivalent of a ballpoint pen that can write upside down under water.

The national agenda for TLTP has been set out by the funding bodies who have made it clear that they expect cost-effective benefits from the products being developed. This, of course, can be interpreted in several ways. If computer-assisted learning materials are expected to replace some lectures, one can't be too surprised if lecturers ask themselves whether those who gave the lectures might themselves be expendable. Some secondary school headteachers who have opted out of local education authority control are already beginning seriously to explore whether computer-assisted learning materials can replace staff in schools which have over-run their budget.

But the vast majority of lecturers are safe enough, for two reasons. The quantity of quality materials currently being developed is not all that extensive. Yet. Hence they may only save a few hours of first-year teaching here and there. And there is no guarantee that implementing the TLTP materials is as smooth a prospect as some would have us believe.

Successfully implementing computer-assisted learning materials into the curriculum requires nothing less than a change in the teaching culture. If IT is to play an effective role within higher education all the members of that community need time not only to reflect on which applications are both feasible and desirable; but also to devise and implement effective, integrated and appropriate strategies. This demands, at least, the active participation and co-operation of lecturers, heads of departments, deans, Pro-vcs, and vcs.

The funding councils say that TLTP materials are intended to release teaching staff from inefficient routine teaching duties. Like teaching students, presumably. Anyway, given that TLTP products will release teaching staff to enable them to concentrate on more efficient tasks - why not release some of them now?

Providing a substantial respite from insane workloads for those lecturers interested in the possibilities of IT-based teaching will be the only humane way to facilitate the groundwork necessary for a cultural overhaul of teaching. Otherwise we will all drown. In which case we will be well placed to use ballpoint pens that write under water. Or 500 computers at the bottom of the ocean.

Co-ordinator, CTI centre for geography, geology and meteorology, University of Leicester.

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