Don't let IT eclipse teaching, dean says

October 27, 2000

Universities embracing the new economy culture must beware the danger of technology's distracting from the importance of what is actually taught.

The warning came from Howard Thomas, new dean of Warwick University Business School, who said it was essential not to undervalue the curriculum in the rush to adopt new technology in teaching.

He welcomed the new e-university proposals but stressed the need for careful thought about resourcing and course design. "The idea is very good, but I think many institutions will fall flat on their faces. We have to make technology work for us, and it does not replace a well-designed curriculum. Let us first understand how we are doing it and why," Professor Thomas said.

"It is not a question of how much money you put in, but one of having the right goals in view when you design programmes and of putting the right incentives in the hands of faculty who need to learn how to lecture in a new environment."

Professor Thomas has returned to the United Kingdom after 20 years as an academic in the United States, most recently as dean at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

Although US universities had been faster to respond to the IT revolution, many UK institutions were now making up for lost time. Professor Thomas predicted that new technology would play a big part in the delivery of MBA programmes to meet growing customer demand for management education alongside a more balanced life.

"There is a big pool of students who do not want to leave their jobs for a traditional full-time MBA. For them, mixing conventional education with computer delivery is the answer," said Professor Thomas, who was until recently chair of the board of the Graduate Management Admissions Council. It was as a member of a GMAC accreditation panel that he first visited Warwick University.

The 57-year-old Welsh-born Professor Thomas exudes the energy of a much younger man and clearly relishes the challenge of his new role at Warwick. He is especially proud of its highly regarded distance-learning MBA programme, which he feels is blazing a trail in using technology to run international electronic study groups for its 1,600 students.

His US experience also taught him to value the quality of British undergraduate education, though he said this was one programme where time spent on campus was essential as part of the students' growing process.

"UK universities are more reflective; there is less frenetic activity than in the US. I am pretty positive and have a sense of humour - you can't take yourself too seriously."

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