Students’ needs, not technology, must drive e-learning strategy, says the English funding council in its consultation document. But what does this mean for academics, many of whom are sceptical? The THES asked three leading figures for their reactions
director, Oxford Internet Institute
I hope that the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s consultation will create an opportunity for academics to avoid becoming e-ostriches. Whether people like it or not, the internet and other information and communication technologies are here to stay. They are having a significant influence on classroom teaching, research, libraries, administration and other areas.
Alison Wolf, professor of management, King’s College London
Far from an opportunity, I find the Hefce consultation and the government’s document, Towards a Unified e-learning Strategy , patronising and depressing. Very few academic are e-ostriches; indeed, I don’t know any who are. On the contrary, they are active users of ICT and have been busy
finding out how it can help them.
Sa’ad Medhat, director, education, policy and innovation, the Engineering and Technology Board
Hefce’s document is not depressing: it invites academics to revitalise and stimulate an otherwise stagnating teaching and learning environment. Outside academia, e-learning is rapidly becoming commonplace. Graduates will become culturally adrift if universities fail to introduce and expose students to these new learning techniques.
WD: And who is better placed than academics to evaluate and understand the value of any innovation in higher education?
SM: You say they are - but why, then, am I constantly hearing about innovative learning developments in further education institutions while higher education is barely registering a whisper? Even schools, despite funding constraints, are making greater strides than our academic elite sector.
The reason is tradition. Some people in higher education still believe the move from blackboard to acetate was the thin end of the wedge. The academic community should be at the heart of the e-learning revolution. They should be driving, not suppressing, opportunity.
WD: Yes, there are a lot of doom-mongering dystopians who see any innovation undermining the sanctity of the tutorial, the classroom and “campus-based” education generally. They are blind to the opportunities. But there are also the “e-vangelists” who overhype the e-positives and ignore the risks and potential failures of the technology.
AW: Like Hefce, getting enthusiastic and “requesting” that institutions build e-learning explicitly into at least four of their strategies and earmarking funds for special initiatives and activities - run, naturally, by itself and other central bodies. Then there is central government, which believes that its particular sci-fi vision hasn’t been realised because citizens are sulking technophobes.
WD: You seem to imply that government is forcing technology on educators. That would fail, I agree. But I think these consultations are aimed at encouraging educators - as producers and users of ICT content, services and technologies - to think creatively about improving learning. They are trying to support institutional innovation. Perhaps you are arguing for a more laissez-faire approach. If not, is there a constructive role government and public policy can play?
AW: Seed money for research is vital, but the fact that one can do extraordinary new things with ICT does not mean it is sensible or cost-effective.
Lots of the things one hopes will happen, don’t. In the commercial world, people do not expect every product to succeed, but they don’t then blame part of the population for lack of moral backbone or commitment. Students aren’t automatically motivated by using software. Very few people engage in serious discussions or create virtual seminars online, however carefully constructed the site and selective the access.
SM: We all acknowledge that e-learning would be a poor substitute for the lecturer, but it can enrich the curriculum, support lecturer-student engagement and boost participation. I have seen students enthralled by e-learning. But the content has to be stimulating and encompass a range of learning styles. Emerging inexpensive authoring tools enable exciting, animated multimedia content to be developed in hours, not days, with output configured for the web or CD-Rom. Creating courseware is neither expensive nor time-consuming.
AW: I disagree - it is extremely time-consuming. I’ve helped develop IT-based materials for teaching statistics and algebra in further education to encourage exploration and deeper understanding, and then found students prefer to rush through to the end and on to things they want to do. I’ve discovered first hand, as part of a curriculum development project, how much work goes into getting materials up on the web - and how rarely one person’s homegrown products are of much interest to anybody else. Activities such as these are very costly and depend on special funding. They teach us a lot about learning and human behaviour but don’t revolutionise the classroom in the way government stubbornly insists they should.
WD: Most academics are so sceptical of the claims of utopians and dystopians alike that they miss the more subtle, yet no less profound, changes taking place. ICTs can undermine or support the role of traditional gatekeepers, such as teachers, to learning and education. They can empower new gatekeepers, such as the developers of courseware, for better or worse. But, if we leave innovations to others, such as those involved in distance education, and do not take an active role in shaping how, when and where technology is used, we are abdicating responsibility for the future of education.
Consultation document: http:///www.hefce.ac.uk/Pubs/circlets/2003