Do the plugged-in opt out?

August 15, 1997

Hundreds of students at Loughborough University are to be the focus of research exploring "virtual living and learning" in higher education.

Project leader Charles Crook said the work would exploit the university's provision of computers in students' bedrooms that allowed them to send messages, access data and read articles from the library.

Dr Crook said there had been concerns that too great an emphasis on IT could threaten the "sense of community" that is a valuable part of student life. The researchers, in collaboration with colleagues at Southampton University, will take a close look at how the use of electronic mail and computer-based information affect students' experience of learning.

Dr Crook said: "This way of living implies radical changes to the way teaching and learning are managed. We want to explore whether Loughborough's great teaching traditions could really become 'on-line experiences'."

So far 500 rooms have been equipped with networked workstations. The initiative covers five different halls, which accommodate 1,800 students in total. Many rooms, however, are deliberately left unconnected and some which are connected are not used by students. Dr Crook said this "avoids 'user ghettos' and preserves opportunity for academic mixing".

The two-year research project is scheduled to start in October. The researchers plan to recruit 50 first and second-year undergraduate students who have networked workstations in their rooms in the first semester of 1997/98. These will be matched with a further 50 who do not have such access.

The study aims to document new patterns of using IT for undergraduate learning and will consider how such patterns redefine a student's traditional interaction with the places and people that make up a university campus.

Dr Crook said this would require researchers to monitor computer-based teaching exchanges and entail them scrutinising the participants through diaries and interviews.

"Much of the activity to be observed is in full enough public view but we hope to gain the confidence of a small group of volunteer students who can report on less visible activities and effects," he said.

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