Diana Laurillard tells Tim Greenhalgh why national coordination is essential to realise lifelong learning. Not long after her appointment as the Open University's first Pro Vice Chancellor with responsibility for technology development, Diana Laurillard was called to serve on Sir Ron Dearing's inquiry into higher education. A mathematician who was an early convert to the use of computers in education, the author of Rethinking University Teaching appears to have a ready-made and potentially influential role as technology advocate in the Dearing rethink.
But this is just one thread in Professor Laurillard's busy academic life which also includes research - an Economic and Social Research Council funded project on "multimedia, education and narrative organisation" with colleagues at the OU and the University of Sussex - and her efforts to gently weave together the many vigorous strands of technology-based educational innovation that have developed in OU departments. She hopes that the leading-edge technology of the university's Pounds 1 million Knowledge Media Institute, and the current practical application of online distance learning exemplified by the technology faculty's Living With Technology course will provide models for all those committed to a broader and more socially aware post-compulsory education system. She believes that the OU, as the UK's largest university in terms of student numbers with nearly 150,000 people registered on its various programmes, is ideally positioned to head the advance of the new learning methods nationally and across political borders. "The UK has been extraordinarily lucky in creating the OU when it did. UK higher education should now exploit this resource."
Her interest in the pedagogic improvements offered by electronic media in education was sparked in 1972 when she was teaching mathematics at South Bank Polytechnic (now South Bank University). She used computer animations from Open University mathematics broadcasts to illustrate her lectures. Two years later, a computer assisted learning initiative by the Secretary of State for Education, Margaret Thatcher, prompted her to take a research fellowship at the University of Surrey where she worked on developing interactive computer graphics for teaching science. A lectureship in the OU's Institute for Educational Technology followed in 1981. In the audiovisual research group she worked with video technology. She presented her framework for future educational use of new technologies in the highly regarded book Rethinking University Teaching, published three years ago. In 1995 she was appointed professor of educational technology and took up the new post of pro vice chancellor for technology development.
Professor Laurillard works closely with the Institute of Educational Technology under its new director Mary Thorpe, and with Marc Eisenstadt's KMI as the OU's five-year, Pounds 10 million INSTILL (Integrating New Systems and Technologies Into Lifelong Learning) programme takes shape.
A key to the success of the many INSTILL projects is staff development, itself a response to student-led demand for greater use of new learning methods. This will involve the OU's 7,376 tutorial and counselling staff as well as the 815 academic staff. Many of the OU's courses are all about reskilling the population in the use of new technology," says Professor Laurillard. "But there is also an internal dimension, the staff." Few academics have had the opportunity to become experienced teachers through new technology, and the IET and KMI are vital for reskilling our academic staff, IET through its workshops, seminars and evaluation studies, and KMI as an R&D centre for academics to develop experimental prototypes in the new media. "We are implementing the principles of the Government's Investors in People programme. We have a large national tutorial and counselling staff base.
"These people will also need to be consulted and trained in the use of the new technologies."
She believes that initiatives such as the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme will not have a big effect on the culture of higher education unless there is a national programme that co-ordinates the many threads of research, development, dissemination, and implementation of new technology in open and distance education.
"The OU already has taken the first steps. Higher education could use the OU's experience in future to look away from the model of three years degree learning at beginning of career in a residential location towards distance learning throughout life with residential elements. Also, there will need to be more responsive curricula, geared towards individuals' and companies' needs - a good combination of resource-based learning and online support."
One such model now in action is the Living With Technology course, which course leader Dr Dick Morris describes as building a large-scale electronic campus. The course brings together nearly 5,000 students from divergent backgrounds, and calls on 400 tutors to help students through six blocks of print, audiovisual, and computer-based materials over a period of 32 weeks. While students refer to their paper-based course materials as a guide, the course is enhanced by threaded discussion groups conducted through an electronic conferencing system called FirstClass. Another goal is to have online assessment of the course. But there are issues of security and quality control. The OU prides itself on the system of assessment conducted by mail, where the quality assurance is near perfect. Professor Laurillard says models such as this course can offer a foundation for the nascent lifelong learning culture. More than 70 per cent of OU students remain in full-time employment throughout their studies and the median age on entry is 37. In 1994 OU students represented 37 per cent of all part-time higher education students at UK universities. The KMI is, for Professor Laurillard, an example of what is possible when cutting-edge techniques are employed by committed staff to produce new learning materials and methods of distribution. It has a wide brief, including knowledge systems, multimedia enabling technologies for disabled people, advanced telematics, virtual classrooms, customisable authoring tools, virtual science laboratories, intelligent agents and training on demand.
"It is a prototype for the engine of the UK's development of new forms of education through the new knowledge media," she says. But if the process is to be successful at that level then there would have to be greater cooperation between higher education institutions.
"The process must become collaborative and collegiate," she says. "If new technology is to be used on a grand scale we have to change the culture of higher education practice."