It's early days for e-volution

April 23, 2004

E-supported learning is gaining ground but much more research is required, argues Linda Challis

With hindsight it seems obvious that predictions, made only a few years ago, that the e-revolution spelt the end of universities were premature. On the other hand, the view that the demise of the UK e-University has confirmed that the world of learning resources will remain much as it has been for the past ten years also seems misplaced. Learning materials are changing, and the future for publishers and universities is unclear.

The impact of the government's higher education bill has added to that uncertainty. The introduction of fees is likely to further squeeze students' ability to buy learning materials at the same time as it raises expectations that universities will provide materials as part of the new deal. The increased student numbers implied by widening participation, together with the possibility of meeting industry's needs through being able to study "anywhere, any time", might suggest a growing potential market for publishers. But these factors also mean catering to a greater variability in learning needs. Furthermore, staff struggling under the weight of new initiatives are unlikely to find the time to do the research and translate the findings into material that can be used for teaching and learning. Add to that the seismic shifts in technical e-learning capacity, and the growing emphasis on acquiring skills as distinct from absorbing content, and one has a very mixed picture indeed.

What does all this mean for higher education and providers of learning materials? For one, it means the emergence of some new kinds of staff.

Universities need people who are able, on behalf of employers and potential students, to identify learning needs and construct programmes accordingly.

It also suggests that there is a role for people who are able to act as brokers between students and teachers.

Perhaps most clearly though, it points to the emergence of a new cadre of learning specialists, academics and non-academics, expert in the new technologies and the pedagogy that underpins their use. In fact, the codification of learning technologists' functions has begun, and the first steps have been taken towards the introduction of accreditation for these staff. The Association of Learning Technology accreditation project report, published in March, set out the kinds of jobs to be done and skills needed by learning technologists.

There is little doubt that the amount of e-material available to students has grown dramatically and will continue to do so. Everyone seems to agree that we do not yet know enough about the pedagogy of e-learning, but we are beginning to get some ideas from experience. We know that the timing and pacing of content is different for different student groups; that supporting large numbers of students on blended programmes poses different challenges from those posed by dealing with small numbers in niche subjects; that protocols for interaction with staff and students are crucial; and that student support is essential. We know too that the traditional format of lecture and seminars already feels outmoded in some subjects and that peer-assisted and e-supported learning is gaining ground rapidly.

Learning and teaching strategies submitted to the Higher Education Funding Council for England will soon have to be rewritten and will need to give much greater attention to e-developments and support for students of all kinds. We need much more research on all this. Without it, we run the risk of losing a good deal more than the £62 million spent on the UKeU as we attempt to understand how the world of learning underwent not quite a revolution, but certainly a rather brisk evolution.

Linda Challis is deputy vice-chancellor (academic affairs) at Oxford Brookes University. She is speaking at The Times Higher -sponsored meeting "The Content Challenge: Publishing for 'the Future of Higher Education'" at City University, April 21.

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