Age of information falls short on inspiration

May 19, 2000

For the e-university to match Dearing's vision, it needs more cash and a wealth of ideas, argues Diana Laurillard

A bewildering lack of vision obscures the debate over the idea of a global e-university among universities and staff.

While the internet creates opportunities for world education, what is on offer is a technological vision rather than one that begins with learners', or even society's, needs.

The Dearing report on higher education set out a vision of the purpose of a university as: teaching (to inspire and enable individuals); research (to increase knowledge and understanding); economy (to serve the needs of a knowledge-based economy); and society (to shape a civilised society). However, if an e-university is simply based on the logistical fact that we can send documents to anyone in the world via modem, it will never match that vision.

A university is not there for the learner who says: "Just tell me what I need," but for the one who asks: "Help me develop the skills and understanding I need."

Online universities already exist in several forms. Corporate universities, especially those in the United States, appear to emulate the traditions of the just-in-time, use-it-tomorrow form of training: immediate application in local situations. This can be valuable to professional development, but is clearly different from the goal of a university education.

There is a dichotomy in the emerging models for an e-university. One preserves the transmission model, the other challenges the technology to support a more complex constructivist model.

The transmission model is based on the simple proposition that teachers teach students (a model that apparently dominates our universities). The broadcast and universal-access characteristics of the internet fit into this.

The constructivist model creates an environment in which students develop skills and understanding to construct their own concepts and apply them. New media would support interpersonal communication and interaction with the subject matter or material.

However, neither model fully reflects Dearing's aims to "inspire and enable individuals to develop their capabilities to the highest potential levels throughout life, so that they grow intellectually, are well equipped for work, can contribute effectively to society and achieve personal fulfilment" and "to serve the needs of an adaptable, sustainable, knowledge-based economy".

A more conversational model is needed in which academics sustain a dialogue with the research community and with their students, who are also supported by personal tutors. This allows academics to get the intellectual renewal they need, and students the support of tutors.

Our e-university must support the whole learning process - including acquisition, questioning, discussion, adapting, testing, investigating, analysing, reflecting and articulating.

Truly radical changes to university teaching are more likely to come from academics aiming to design a powerful learning environment and from those whose teaching ambitions rise above the transmission model.

But radical changes require investment. Open University courses using online methods have some 80,000 students networked. Our experience suggests they have a similar cost structure to traditional courses, though with a distinct shift of resource from the creation of course materials to the tutorial support of students via web-based conferencing systems.

As long as the supportive model of university teaching is maintained, a principal cost will always be the labour-intensive learner-

tutor relationship, whether face-to-face or online.

There is a plausible future model that will enable large numbers of overseas students to study in a similar way to OU students, thus enabling our higher education system to achieve quality provision, at scale, on a global basis. But transition to this model will require investment: in curriculum development, materials and services development, technical infrastructure, staff development and quality assurance systems.

So far, there has been almost no investment in enabling our universities to make the shift from place-based teaching to the web-based environment.

Any business that has to transform itself invests heavily in the process. When the business is the nurturing of people studying over several years, the transformation process is complex. Our government exhorts us to convert to the new model, but asks us to do it with an annual 1 per cent cut in resource.

If we do not face up to the costs of change, we will under-exploit the technology and jeopardise the quality that is our best chance of a competitive edge.

Diana Laurillard is pro vice-chancellor (learning technologies and teaching) at the Open University.

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