Embrace technology to avoid 'crisis of relevance'

Academy must use ICT to give students what they want, Jisc conference hears. Hannah Fearn reports

April 22, 2010

Universities "should not be doing anything in the classroom that could be done online", a conference has heard.

The call for the academy to embrace technology came from William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford.

He was speaking on the opening day of the annual conference of the Joint Information Systems Committee in London last week.

The conference also heard from Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University, who called for greater flexibility and open access to learning materials.

Mr Bean said that adopting a more informal style would be key to universities' survival in a time of growing competition from the private sector and informal learning providers.

Universities faced a "crisis in relevance", he said, as students complain that degree courses are not providing the learning experience they want.

"There is a mismatch between the expectations of students and teaching and learning," he told delegates.

"Students are already finding ways to short-circuit your systems. The more we see the introduction of greater competitive forces - and if we see a fees increase - we will start to feel even more pressure from our student communities to adapt and evolve ICT into our pedagogies. And they're right."

Mr Bean said that face-to-face contact in universities had to be about more than simply passing on information that could be obtained digitally.

And he said that universities that embraced informal learning across a range of digital platforms would find that the approach encouraged enrolment into formal higher education.

"That's the world we are in today. I think it is the only way we are going to be able to deal with the challenges of globalisation and massification," he added.

The conference was presented with an analysis suggesting that open-access publishing can also deliver significant financial savings for cash-strapped universities.

Alma Swan, director of consultancy company Key Perspectives, said savings for universities setting up open-access repositories grew with the size of the institution.

Martin Hall, vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, pointed to his institution's open-access repository, which Salford's academics have been ordered to use.

"We didn't do it for the money but because we wanted to return to the notion of the university as a public institution," he said.

"It puts us in an important political, moral and intellectual space. It's better to argue for investment in universities when you can argue that you are committed to open access."

However, Debbie Shorley, director of library services at Imperial College London, said some scholars remained "defensive" about open access.

"There is still significant opposition among some academics to doing this," she said.

"It will be seen as more work, and a lot of academics are on the editorial boards or are editors of significant journals, so there is a conflict of interest."

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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