Leanliness of the long-distance runner

November 8, 1996

MEGA-UNIVERSITIES AND KNOWLEDGE MEDIA John Daniel Kogan Page, 211 pp, Pounds 35.00. - ISBN 0 7494 2119 3.

This year has been the Year of Lifelong Learning. Perhaps as good an indicator as any of the perceived importance of continuing education and skills retraining is that, on my Web search, the Hotbot search engine returned 18,189 matches for the phrase "lifelong learning". We hear speak, at the same time, of "learning organisations", "learning communities", and even one "learning nation" - Singapore. The issue is not only one of giving broader access to education and training for young people but also addressing the need for continuous updating of skills to cope with rapid changes in a society in which more than 60 per cent of jobs people will do, ten years hence, have not yet been invented.

Against that background, Sir John Daniel's Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media is a timely and important book and, I believe, will prove essential reading for all involved in higher education, from senior managers and planners to the teaching staffs whose working lives will be dramatically reshaped in the coming years by the crises facing education worldwide. For what the book offers is, in the words of Russell Edgerton in the foreword, "a rare combination of scholarly analysis, statesmanship, and political savvy - all brought to bear on the most important and confusing issue that higher education faces today."

The "issue" in question, and the basic thesis of Sir John Daniel's book, is easily stated. Daniel soberly advises us that "population growth is outpacing the world's capacity to give people access to universities. A sizeable new university would now be needed every week merely to sustain current participation rates in higher education." In a world in which 50 per cent of the population is under the age of 20 and in which education and training for employment "are a primary route to responsible citizenship", face-to-face teaching in traditional residential universities is transparently neither a cost-effective nor an economically sustainable mode of delivery for post-compulsory education. Mega-universities - distance teaching universities enrolling over 100,000 students in degree-level courses - "provide a powerful response to the crises of access and cost". Daniel lists 11 such universities, including the UK Open University (with 157,450 students in degree programmes in 1995), the Indira Gandhi National Open University (with 242,000 students), and Anadolu University (Turkey) and China TV University System, both with in excess of a half-million students. The 11 mega-universities are profiled in a 30-page appendix.

The book is thematically divided into three threads of discussion. The first four chapters discuss the crises facing higher education, the emergence of the mega-universities from a tradition in distance education, and the ways in which the mega-universities are meeting the challenges of cost and increased students numbers. Establishing its pedigree, Daniel traces a history of distance education that, he intriguingly suggests, goes back to St Paul's letters to the dispersed Christian communities of the early church. (Presumably the contemporary course textbook, in loco doctoris, is a present-day heir to that tradition.) It was only in the mid-19th century, however, that, with the coming together of printing and the newly-introduced universal postal services, distance learning in the modern sense - remote-classroom teaching for small colleges and, in particular, correspondence courses for individuals became possible. And by the end of the 19th century forms of correspondence education, from both the public and private sector, had reached maturity in Britain, Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, and Sweden.

Sir John stresses that, in view of its very nature, the evolution of distance education has been tied, from print and post onwards, to the developments of new technologies and new media. Clearly, however, the most dramatic developments have taken place in the past quarter century with the use of the broadcast media, "personal media" (audio-cassette players, VCRs, and personal computers), and of telecommunication systems, enabling new forms of remote-classroom teaching and correspondence learning.

The following thematic thread of the book considers how distance teaching universities, and in particular the mega-universities, should maintain their lead as mass education providers in the face of growing competition from campus universities which now offer courses by distance learning and from commercial organisations; and in this, suggests the author, the development of an effective technology strategy is likely to play a significant role. It is, in passing, a sobering thought and a sign of changing times that Cardinal Newman The Idea of a University and Matthew Arnold (Culture and Anarchy) would have made as little sense of this book as they would have of "the education and training industry" which it seeks to analyse: for, increasingly forced to compete for "buyers" of their "services" in a market economy, "the drive for renewal is the desire of all universities to maintain or enhance their competitive advantage" since "the notions of competitive advantage and superior performance are as real for them as for firms in the private sector". To make sense of challenges facing higher education, the author subjects universities to scrutiny within the framework of Michael Porter's "five forces" for analysing the dynamics of competitive advantage in organisations: the bargaining power of buyers (principally the student and the state), the bargaining power of suppliers, the threat of new entrants, the threat of substitute products and services, and rivalry among existing firms.

The final thread of the book, Chapters 7 and 8, highlights issues that campus and distance teaching universities will have to address. While there are differences in many of the challenges facing each type of university, there are four areas of common concern: they should be able to demonstrate teaching effectiveness and learning productivity; as the geographical dispersion of the members of the student body increases and more learning is done off-campus, they must be able to reinforce the spirit of collective endeavour - effectively maintain the integrity of an academic community; third, they need to address the issues of cost and quality in the production and delivery of courses and intellectual assets; finally, to have in place the infrastructures to manage scaleable growth and logistics in distributed institutions.

The key to meeting these challenges, suggests the author, are the so-called "knowledge media", a term coined by Marc Eisenstadt of the OU to describe the "convergence of telecommunications, computing and the learning or cognitive sciences". Computer-mediated communications, with the development and delivery of high quality course materials and with properly managed teletutoring and administrative support, may change the education industry not merely quantitively but also qualitatively in redefining the way in which we learn.

Chris Hutchison is senior lecturer in the faculty of technology, Kingston University.

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