IT takes strain in Cyberland

June 9, 1995

I have recently discovered a new community. It is international, open and democratic. It inhabits what William Gibson called "cyberspace" and can be contacted through the Internet.

It is growing exponentially: Time magazine estimates that 30-40 million people in more than 160 countries have email access to the Internet. Browsing the Web is proving compulsive. I am boring family and friends about the wonders of Cyberland and its revolutionary potential for teaching and learning. However, as William L. Renwick recently pointed out, video conferencing, computer graphics and multimedia are simply the modern equivalents of earlier technological innovations (radio and TV) which were heralded as educational panaceas.

What are the potential benefits and costs of these new technologies for higher education? One of the key challenges today is how to finance and manage the desired shift from an elite to a mass and eventually a universal higher education system, meeting the needs of the individual student and society without a decline in quality.

There appears to be an emerging consensus that student-centred learning is potentially a more effective model for "lifetime learning": students need to be empowered as well as enabled if they are to confront economic and technological change with confidence. As Renwick points out, the educational application of hypermedia potentially makes students active participants in ways never before possible.

In some innovative schools in the United States, these new technologies are already being used to change the traditional roles of teacher and student. Thus, at Dalton School, New York City, students have access to a computer-simulated archaeological dig, created at the school, study astronomy using computer-based tools used by real astronomers and are being introduced to the Internet.

Such developments are not cheap: Dalton, a private school, funded its developments via a $3.7 million donation. Given the strain on United Kingdom educational budgets, how can they be afforded? The challenge to universities is to devise a rational and defensible investment strategy. But how do we decide how much to spend on experimental as opposed to tried and tested technologies? This is not just a question of books versus computers, it involves judgement about which technologies are likely to become the standard and at what stage to enter the market. Are the new technologies complementary to or alternatives for conventional systems? There are other problems, too, including tricky philosophical questions about controlling access to certain types of information.

The mismatch between the skills and competencies of traditional teachers and the teacher of the future poses an individual and an institutional challenge for which there is no quick-fix solution. The impact of this learning revolution is unlikely to be immediate.

Universities cannot afford to be complacent: computing in schools is being targeted by organisations anxious to secure their share of the financial rewards flowing from the superhighway while the Further Education Funding Council plans to spearhead community access by college-based "Millennium Rooms". When demand starts to feed through, universities will need to respond.

Many remain sceptical. Those who have seen and experienced what these technologies can do for teaching and learning do not need convincing: the learning revolution may not arrive tomorrow but it is as inevitable as night following day.

Diana Green is pro vice chancellor of the University of Central England.

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