Binary code is on the wall

December 22, 1995

Books are too old-fashioned for today's students so let's give them computers instead, argues Vincent Mitchell.

How many times do you hear academics complaining about the difficulty of persuading students to read books and articles? They seem to be suffering from Reluctant Learners Syndrome.

Recent data from the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit found that an astonishing 77 per cent of 21-year-olds were unable to reproduce four arguments in favour of hunting after reading a short text containing the points. This highlights the problem which a large number of young people have in extracting meaning from printed text.

Lecturers may continue to demand our students read and interpret texts and references, but they may be missing the point.

For most academics, the reading of printed books and articles is second nature; something we have done since a very early age. But this is not the case for our students. Is it really in our, or our students', best interests to force them into ways of learning which are becoming increasingly alien, or is it wiser to build on their experiences and to lead out and develop the talents they have? Not to appreciate that the modern-day educational environment has to compete with many distractions to win students' attention and time, is to fail to understand a fundamental aspect of today's society and education.

Why should learning and education not be stimulating, motivating and even exciting, in an intellectual sense? Young people have a fundamental drive to explore and their curiosity can be satiated by numerous stimuli which are generated by the external world and communicated via a variety of media. There are, however, certain experiences which convey more stimulation than others, for example, television, radio, fun fairs, parties, etc. In the past, students wishing to learn have had access to a restricted range of sources, some of which were not very stimulating. Traditional methods of teaching are being relegated by the students.

It is not that students are voting with their interest in the subject; they are voting with their interest in the way that subject is delivered. The fact is that the nature of the student market is changing and when that happens, it is a courageous organisation which refuses to change with it. Educators must fight back and relish the challenge of the new. Students are and will be much more computer literate and technologically dependent and we must build on these strengths to develop their intellectual skills.

Video teaching and multi-media packages are just the beginning of what must surely be, sooner or later, a teaching revolution. Computer-aided learning is the beginning of this process but, as yet, developments are slow and do not cover all disciplines. These changes are not simply the latest vogue for progressive educationalists, which like Initial Teaching Alphabet spelling and "the-abolish-the-apostrophe" campaign, are easily discredited. They require a fundamental, and in some cases monumental, shift in attitudes and skills on behalf of all those concerned with education to develop the new screen-based literacy.

Perhaps lessons can be learned from our informationally more advanced United States counterparts. Interactive television is a reality in the US and the building of information super highways across the US will clearly put them in the digital era whilst we in the technologically-challenged United Kingdom languish in the analogue age. Some moves towards the revolution in the UK have already been made.

For example, as part of its Teaching and Learning Technology Programme launched in 1992, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has given Pounds 450,000 to a project team to develop 12 multimedia learning packages for marketing. But is this approach too tactical and not strategic enough? What is really required is not for HEFCs to produce ad hoc teaching materials, but to provide the infrastructure and facilities to support national computer aided learning development across the curriculum by providing packs, training and advice.

Bespoke systems are likely to be a more fruitful way forward. Institutions need help and lots of it to help themselves. Such is the enormity of this task that the burden will need to be shared by many parties including government, universities, as well as computer companies with long-established links to education such as Apple, DEC and Research Machines. Given the complexity of the relationships involved, it will take many years to achieve productive partnerships.

Discussions need to start now. First, institutions must appreciate that appointing non-computer-literate staff could severely disadvantage them and, regardless of their recruitment policies, massive investment in staff development will be needed. Second, now is the time that institutions should be contemplating how to set up CAL centres to support departments developing CAL applications. The learning curve must be started now for institutions wishing to remain at the forefront of their pedagogic areas, because CAL packages are likely to be the student texts of the future. Third, massive investment in student computing facilities within all departments and student residences as well as large-scale conversion of seminar rooms and lecture theatres to computer laboratories will need to take place. Universities will need to begin making plans now.

Many academics and their institutions appreciate neither the magnitude nor the temporal proximity of changes in store. Some might argue that the British academic community may not have the vision, resources, desire or courage to move into education in the 21st century.

But can we assume that future students will find acceptable the anachronistic UK teaching methods when faced with increasing Europeanisation in education and the availability of technology which potentially makes it as easy to deliver education services to Bombay from Boston as it is from Milton Keynes? The binary code is on the wall and we cannot ignore it.

Vincent Mitchell is a lecturer in marketing at Manchester School of Management, UMIST.

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