ICT: Fast-forward to the future

May 4, 2007

Britain led the world in the early development of ICT, says Ron Cooke.

Maintaining and exploiting that critical advantage requires even greater vision

Over the past decade and more, information and communication technology has moved to the heart of education and research in the UK. No longer the preserve of the early adopter or the expert, it has become not only an integral part of our working lives as learners, teachers, researchers, librarians and administrators, but also a central strand of institutional and national provision.

A recent Value for Money report, commissioned by the Joint Information Systems Committee, found that the value of time saved in information-gathering by the provision of online resources is something like 18 times the amount spent on them. The efficiency gains of such an investment are therefore considerable when compared with paper-based alternatives such as inter-library loans or visits to alternative locations.

One has only to think of some of the key online resources that have become available in the past few years and compare their accessibility and ease of use with the challenges faced by those of us from an earlier generation to understand the transformation that continues to shape the ways in which we learn, teach and undertake research.

It is no exaggeration to say that universities have led the way in this country, not only in the adoption of online resources but in a variety of other ICT-related spheres, giving the UK a crucial international edge.

Much of this is due to the innovation and far-sightedness of universities as they develop or adopt new solutions to familiar challenges. The use of virtual learning environments, for example, is now firmly established in the sector, bringing flexibility and accessibility to learning and teaching. The articles in this ICT Special show more examples of such innovation. Not all are strictly related to learning, as the example of ICT to assist with the complex issue of student retention shows.

The rapid progress being made in higher education's use of ICT has been made possible by the sector's willingness to look for national solutions to those challenges where it makes sense. We have learnt that innovation in ICT is not cheap and that advantages are not easily realised. This means that the economies of scale attained by Jisc and others are of real value.

The world-class Joint Academic Network may be the best example of such an approach, but there are many others that have placed the UK ahead of much of the world in the use of ICT.

The articles that follow suggest other areas where a national approach makes sense. The establishment of open-access digital repositories is beginning to help universities make their research outputs more visible and maximise their investment in research. The digitisation of major scholarly resources is another such area, one in which significant funding is being channelled to make available important but otherwise inaccessible resources. Finally, research and development into creating VREs is increasingly showing how researchers can collaborate across institutional and even national boundaries.

But for all our achievements, challenges remain. How are we to ensure, for example, that IT systems can support each institution in achieving its goals? How are we to harness technology to ensure that the UK's world-leading innovations in research can be translated into commercial applications? How can we reach every practitioner so that each is in a position to judge the value of what ICT has to offer? How can ICT be used to support not only learning, teaching and research, but also, increasingly, the management and administration of universities? And what of the international dimension to these questions?

This ICT Special attempts to answer some of these questions. For us at Jisc, these challenges are neither institutional, national nor, indeed, international. Rather they are challenges that we should meet - and are meeting - together, in collaboration.

The remorseless pace of change calls for real vision and ears close to the ground to ensure that we maintain progress. As a sector, we have come a long way in a short time but, in an increasingly competitive world, much remains to be done.

Sir Ron Cooke is chairman of the Joint Information Systems Committee.

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