October 21, 2005

Information overload is the bane of modern organisations. A deluge of e-mails can blur decision-making and professionalism at universities as in any other activity. A network out of action spells frustration and inaction. And slick presentations that turn into a technological embarrassment permeate university life, from management to teaching. Digitised archives were chosen at random and stored using technologies that were rapidly superseded, leading to irritation and weaker research output.

Doubters inevitably seize on the downside of the ICT revolution that universities were so influential in creating. The upside is often ignored or lost in a welter of exaggerated claims by manufacturers and developers. The gains are frequently incremental, achieved by patient assembly of building blocks that together achieve more than a sum of their parts. The painstaking and comprehensive digitisation of original research material, for instance, is creating a goldmine for academics who will have ready access from their desktops. The evidence suggests that it is well used and that the effort is rewarded by a large increase in demand. The Joint Information Systems Committee reports its e-resource collections are accessed thousands of times a day and that demand doubles every nine months. That, in turn, places strains even on its sophisticated computer networks, but the next-generation SuperJanet5 is designed to cope flexibly with the demand dynamics.

Virtual Learning Environments are still evolving - some say into distributed learning environments that break away from the virtual stranglehold of the proprietary software manufacturers. But the UK is seen by the manufacturers as a mature market - in other words, one where the era of rapid growth is turning to one of steady improvement to meet student and staff demands, while enhancing the management tools that can easily monitor individual performance.

More flexibility is entering the market, offering the facility to build other software applications seamlessly into the VLE. If, as some players suggest, the day of the monolithic VLE is over, the market giants will not give up without a struggle.

But the most compelling case for the ICTs comes in those extremes that are supposed never to happen, but all too often do. A small part of the human impact of Hurricane Katrina was the disruption of the beginning of the university year. While some universities in the region dispersed their students for the first semester and pleaded for them to return in the New Year, one simply said it would turn to its VLE to begin courses this month.

Even in the UK, dramas do happen - such as Brunel's brush with disaster that would have compromised its internal communications but for a piece of wizardry that enabled the network to be restored within hours, rather than the disastrous loss of communications for a lengthy period at a critical time.

This special supplement explores universities' and researchers' take-up of the rapidly developing technologies for teaching and research, and offers a glimpse of the ICT future.

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