Meet the avatars, your new students

November 24, 2006

On the eve of the Online Educa Berlin conference, The Times Higher asked delegates how IT will change the nature of academics' work in ten years' time.

Academic lives will be changed for ever with the death of the ivory tower desktop and the advent of more mobile, ambient, wearable devices "plugged into" technical and social networks. Learning technologies will be more instant and accessible, reach more people and touch lives not previously "into" formal education.

Knowledge construction and sharing will become more participative, complex, informal and learner-centred. Academics should become as comfortable in the virtual world as in the real world. Learning design will shift to accommodate mobility and participation, and students will need more structure and pacing by teachers. Universities should be building this capacity NOW!

Gilly Salmon
Professor of e-learning and learning technologies, Leicester University

Academics are being overwhelmed by the amount of information and communication that now exists. If I were to spend a minute answering every (non-spam) e-mail I get, it would take me at least two hours each day.JWe need a more sophisticated mechanism for automated responses to e-mails.

Meanwhile, browsing the wealth of relevant "published" material on a subject is becoming almost impossible. We therefore need sophisticated mechanisms for academic publications - going far beyond what Google is currently thinking of providing - to identify the most pertinent material for our research.

I am also sure that with all the technology available for e-learning in ten years' time there will be a resurgence of interest in being "taught" by a real person. Training people to be quality "teachers"will be far more important than focusing on the technology they will be using.

Tim Unwin
Professor of geography and director of graduate studies, Royal Holloway, University of London

People invest large amounts of time and energy playing video and online games with multiple participants. This presents a tantalising opportunity for education. As the need for lifelong learning becomes more manifest, so serious online games will grow increasingly important. Future generations will demand it.

An example of a serious multi-user game is the Dutch virtual city of Sieberdam. Law students use it to prepare cases, social workers to orchestrate neighbourhood activities and young people to experiment with finding a job. The city consists of an interactive map, underlying Yellow Pages and pseudo websites for agencies, enterprises, associations, even individual citizens. It forms the common playground for a whole range of simulations.

Teachers define roles, tasks and a work flow that determine which tasks should be available for which role at which point in time. Students then become participants in the simulation game, playing a role, assessing their options, making decisions and accepting the consequences.

An example of a single-user game is similar to the flight simulator used in pilot training. Such games could be developed for all types of complex machinery, laboratory experiments and complex procedures. They offer students a cheap and safe way to learn.

Pieter van der Hijden
Business information systems tutor, Amsterdam University of Professional Education

The "personal learning environment" will have an enormous impact. This is not a single technology but rather a range of tools and practices that put the student at the centre of the learning process.

The rise of social software such as blogs, wikis and, indeed, social networking sites such as Bebo and MySpace herald a sea change in the way we think about community, collaboration and knowledge sharing. Built on what have been called Web 2.0 technologies, this new architecture of participation will continue to blur the boundaries between formal and informal learning spaces. There will be a shift from text and towards other media such as audio and video. The semantic web, in which content is navigated through user-generated tags and categories that add meaning and content, has yet to have its day.

Academics will be pressured to adapt their practice by a new generation of learners capable of choosing and harnessing their own technologies for study. These personal learning environments will render traditional "virtual learning environments" mere repositories for content and assessment, and will force academics and institutions to respond rapidly and responsibly to these changes if they are to continue to engage adequately with their student body.

Steven Warburton
E-learning and ICT manager, King's College London

3G telephony is going to change the lives of academics. In Sweden, young people already use it and have, for example, Microsoft Messenger on their phones. I'm giving a bunch of students advice about postmodernist literary criticism via Messenger as I write this.It's likely that some of them are contacting me via their phones.

Students could "buy" the exact components of whatever course they want, regardless of where in the world these components are being offered. I run an online business-writing course, and my students, who are from all over Sweden and the world, spend most time in one-to-one contact with an internet tutor - be it Beth in Auckland, Bruce in Brisbane or Jon in Valladolid. The idea of students spending their days in university buildings, sitting in rows and experiencing "Dick Turpin" pedagogy ("stand and deliver") is on the way out.

Academics are going to be working with their students much more on a one-to-one basis, rather than seeing them as a mass of people in a lecture hall. In one sense, we'll be going back to an ancient way of working, rather like Socrates meeting people in the agora in Athens - students and teachers will engage in that kind of Socratic dialogue on a much more casual basis than today, as and when the questions occur.

I envisage this going further, with link-ups between 3G telephony and virtual environments, such as Second Life, liberating students from their computers, so they can, for example, steer their avatars through Birmingham in the 1980s on their mobile phones from home as they participate with me in exercises on David Lodge's Nice Work.

This will all involve quite a radical change in our working environments: we will all have to learn to organise our thoughts, and ration access to ourselves so we don't become overwhelmed with information and inputs.

David Richardson
Lecturer in English, Kalmar University, Sweden

A changing demographic profile will result in a student population that involves more "earning and learning". Such students will therefore require flexible delivery methods. New initiatives will focus on the use of appropriate personalised mobile technologies, enabling students to have greater control over when they want to learn and a wider choice of learning experience through a blend of teaching approaches.

This market-led development will have a dramatic impact on the lives of academics, requiring the use of different teaching styles and appropriate information management using modern technologies. From a university perspective, it presents the challenge of providing a responsive learning interface with students while supporting staff as they learn about and adapt to using new approaches to teaching.

Jo Smedley
Assistant director of combined honours, Aston University

New plagiarism control tools will have an impact as we receive our students' assignments electronically. The growth of databases of such work will make it easy for lecturers to check for cheating and students will find it increasingly difficult to plagiarise. It will be easier to obtain better marks by using sources in a positive and constructive way.

Tone Vold
Assistant professor, Hedmark University College, Norway

Computer processing speeds will continue to improve, network bandwidth will grow, fast computers will get smaller and so on. At the same time, everything will get cheaper. It's also possible that these benefits will be accompanied by a ubiquitous "smartness" in networked systems capable of deducing our patterns of behaviour and hence anticipating our needs. Artificial intelligence may appear simply as improved search engines or, perhaps more interestingly, in things such as expert chatbots that can hold conversations online.

Such developments would step up the challenge to the authority of teaching institutions that all computing technology represents. However, the significant and predictable problem for universities will be to keep up with the pace of technological change in general.

We are likely to reach a time quite soon when it makes no sense for a university to duplicate commercially available IT services, such as websites, e-mail accounts and intranets. All can be bought for a fraction of what it now costs universities and almost all are more robust and better maintained. There's bound to be resistance, but eventually even university management teams will see that having IT departments in their current form is an anachronism and a waste of resources.

David Rowsell
Senior research fellow, IT research and development unit, University of the Arts, London

From the perspective of learning and teaching technology, the main driver will be the knowledge, expertise and expectations of students.

They will have extreme expectations with regard to the availability, personalisation and the collaborative features of the content they use.

This will be enforced by hardware advances that, compared with today, will provide processors with 1,000 times greater processing power and 100 times greater storage capacity, and portable devices with A3 roll-up screens and virtual keyboards, integrated voice/video wireless streaming and always-on access to the web.

Academics will not create content. Instead, they will identify high-quality trusted sources that their students will use. The key skill students will have to develop is how to identify and manipulate quality information and learning materials from unlimited access to data.

Elizabeth Rogerson
Head, Distance Learning Centre (Nursing and Palliative Care), and Colin Smythe Dundee University

Miniaturisation will converge with developments in nanotechnology and three-dimensional subatomic computing to produce fully interactive, personalised virtual learning environments. The resultant effect on universities will be to hasten a re-evaluation ofJthe relationship between physical space and learning space, and the recognition of learning as an individual, internalised process, both in cognitive and in physical terms.

The effect on the academic is going to be traumatic, to say the least. The biggest challenge facing university staff development departments is going to be to prepare academics for a world of work in which constant, radical change is an inherent characteristic of day-to-day life.

Whether universities in their present form will be able to adapt to a situation where most learning takes place elsewhere, often under the auspices of maximally flexible flat-structured organisations, is another question altogether.

Herbert Thomas
Head of e-learning, the Centre for Higher Education Studies and Development, the University of the Free State, South Africa

Online Educa Berlin , the 12th International Conference on Technology-Supported Learning and Training, will be held in Berlin between November 29 and December 1.
Website: www.online-educa.com

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