Dearing backs the learning net

August 1, 1997

Cheered by Dearing's endorsement of ideas which the Computers and Teaching Initiative has been promoting for the past six years, Joyce Martin and Nick Hammond respond to plans which include merging the CTI with other bodies concerned with learning and teaching

Dearing has put students at the centre of the teaching and learning process, with communication and information technologies (C&IT) in a strong supporting role. Advocates of computer technology will be delighted with the recognition that "Over the next ten years the delivery of some course materials and much of the organisation and communication of course arrangements will be conducted by computer . . . All students will expect continuous access to the network of the institution(s) at which they are studying, as a crucial link into the learning environment . . .Physical and temporal obstacles to access for students will be overcome with the help of technology."

Technology is not a panacea for higher education's ills, however. The CTI's submission to the Dearing committee focussed on three major themes:

* importance of properly managing the planning, implementation and use of learning technologies

* need for educational intervention and support structures to be sensitive to the needs and practices of lecturers and students

* need to understand how education can be best achieved, and how educational technologies can be most effectively deployed.

Each of these points has been addressed in the report. The first is taken up in Rec 41 and 42, which call for institutions to have an overarching communications and information strategy by 1999/2000, and to develop managers who combine a deep understanding of C&IT with senior management experience. We also welcome the recommendations concerning infrastructure and access (Rec , 28, 45 and 46), including increased connectivity and bandwidth for networks, and the acquisition of portable computers by all students by 2005/06.

However, it is Dearing's discussion of C&IT in relation to teaching and learning which concerns us here. The increasing diversity of students, and the different experiences and requirements they bring to learning, led Dearing to the view that major changes will have to occur in teaching practice. C&IT will play an increasingly central role, not only in the delivery of materials but also in supporting communication and in the management of learning within and beyond individual institutions. To exploit the full potential of new technology will require changes in institutional culture and investment in staff development and student induction. The report recognises the need to provide training in the application of C&IT and to reward innovative methods of teaching and learning.

Responsibility for coordinating the accreditation of staff training and teacher education would fall to a new Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (Rec 14), which will also "commission research and development in learning and teaching practices, and stimulate innovation in learning and teaching." The CTI welcomes the promise of research to determine what constitutes best practice and to evaluate the pedagogical outcomes of IT-based learning. Longer-term development work, as proposed for the institute, is now needed to provide nationally available and properly evaluated models of implementation.

As Dearing acknowledges, there have until now been a range of agencies with a remit to develop, implement, disseminate or research IT-based approaches to learning. We welcome the proposal that they should be linked within the same co-ordinating body. We particularly welcome the opportunity to work more closely with bodies concerned with teaching and learning in the widest sense, as we believe that developments in this area must be led by the needs of students and academics.

We are encouraged by Dearing's endorsement of the approach that the needs of students and academics can only be understood from within the different disciplines in which the delivery of teaching and learning takes place, exemplified by the CTI's 24 subject-specific centres.

The committee recognises the need for a continued programme of subject-specific advice and support on technology-based educational practice, and the subject-specific development, evaluation and dissemination of materials, and sees "a central role for the CTI centres working as part of the institute" (8.71).

Pedagogical research and long-term synergies to be developed by the institute need to be largely discipline-based to capture the imagination of academic staff and remain driven by educational needs.

In 1991 the CTI called for an effective quality control filter for courseware. This has now been identified as a further role for the institute (Rec 15), taking the form of a kitemark. We remain committed to the view that the quality of the supportive context is often more significant than the material.

The CTI has long called for substantial investment to ensure development of communication and information technologies and to produce high-quality teaching and learning materials, develop strategies for integrating C&IT into the curriculum, and to support staff and students as they acquire the necessary expertise.

If this report heralds a new commitment to C&IT and to innovation in teaching and learning, the CTI welcomes it and looks forward to playing an active role in the institute.

Joyce Martin is director, CTI Support Service, University of Oxford. Nick Hammond is director, CTI Psychology, University of York.

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