April 29, 2005

Events move rapidly in the realm of information and communications technology. As developments raise expectations, yesterday’s cutting-edge technology quickly becomes today’s bare minimum. Every month new uses of ICTs come to light - several are described in this issue. Many are small-scale efforts that contribute to a wider picture. Others are grander schemes that attempt to pull together different strands to create the virtual learning environments that universities are told are the future. The learning environment will become ever more important as competition intensifies in the post-2006 world of top-up fees and bursaries. Failure to satisfy students’ expectations will dent recruitment as surely as substandard accommodation, a bad report from the Quality Assurance Agency or a poor showing in the research assessment exercise.

Creating the right environment will require money and consideration, for there is no cheap route to a staff and student-friendly future-proof solution. The UKeU debacle shows that solutions that emerge from the bottom up are more likely to succeed than those imposed from above or outside. Whatever the costs, however, institutions cannot stay out of the race. They increasingly recognise that students want their education to reflect the world in which they will work. While traditional modes of education are not ready to be pensioned off, many insist that they must be complemented by the latest, and best, technology.

Most academics now realise that they must respond to student demands. VLEs must be able to grow with student and faculty expectations, and with the new technologies that flow from the software companies and open-source providers.

For university managements, the choice is not whether to create the VLEs that students want, but how to. Should the solution be home grown, open source or a commercial package? Few universities have the capacity to build from scratch comprehensive systems integrated with pre-existing management and records systems. If they do, they will have to provide appropriate support. The lecturer burning the midnight oil to put materials online needs 24/7 support; similarly, the student battling with a complex assignment over a weekend does not want to hear a recorded message that the helpline operates Monday-Friday.

Open source chimes with the public service ethos of universities, and who would want to pay thousands in licence fees to a software company when an off-the-shelf alternative is available? But most IT professionals would opt for proven commercial packages backed by solid support, easy upgrades and the discipline of the market - if it doesn’t suit, go to the competition.

Companies such as Blackboard and WebCT know that once they are in place on campus, it is not easy to switch - although a tiny handful of universities have managed it. Each package has its market niche - WebCT among the traditional universities and Blackboard with the post-1992 universities, for example.

Their market is bound to grow as universities constantly upgrade and extend their use of the technologies. And - outside the UK and the US - the untapped markets where traditional pedagogy still rules are huge.

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