Technology will help lifelong learners to track their progress and tailor their studies says Morag Arnot. Lifelong learning through part-time study at the University of Paisley is a reality for more than 2,000 students. Most of these students are adults aged between 25 and 40. Many do not yet have a degree-level qualification.
A multi-campus university, supported by a network of PCs and videoconferencing systems, is a likely development at Paisley as demand grows for provision which is delivered in a form and at a time and place which people actually want. The days of "take it or leave it" university provision are numbered.
All university provision was modularised last year which means that students attending during the day, in the evening, at the weekend or even over the summer get the same quality of provision and the same forms of assessment, regardless of their age and educational background. This is different from the type of continuing education offered in the past by traditional universities, which was mainly composed of liberal arts courses. But it does not prevent students at Paisley taking courses purely for pleasure or personal development.
The culture of lifelong learning is certainly growing in the southwest of Scotland. Most part-time students attending Paisley say they took up part-time study as a direct result of a volatile labour market or as a means of enhancing their effectiveness in their present job. Although the majority of students pay their own fees, an increasing number are supported by employers.
This level of flexibility and the wide range of provision now available has taken several years to develop. It began in 1990 with the opening up of the university's daytime provision to part-time students. At this stage, the university was still a Council for National Academic Awards accredited central institution with its provision dominated by highly prescriptive programmatic degrees, almost exclusively offered on a full-time basis, with no form of accredited continuing education provision. During the summer of 1990, the university introduced a credit accumulation and transfer scheme (CATS) which was designed to widen access and increase flexibility in higher education. In October that year, the first cohort of students numbered just 32, who attended part-time during the day - although many more had indicated a strong preference for evening provision.
There are certain key developments which have been crucial to the success of the programme - some based on technological solutions and some of a more conventional nature.
The dramatic growth of the CATS evening programme was only sustainable through the development and operation of a sophisticated information system, designed to track the many different modes and levels of study allowed through the scheme. In addition, the key element of allowing students to import credit for prior learning had to be accommodated within the tracking system.
Experience has shown that part-time evening students often prefer to receive educational guidance and support by telephone rather than in person. This is hardly surprising as most are working during the day and have to fit their studies into busy schedules. For this reason, the Department of Continuing Education put in place a telephone advice facility and offered online support until 7pm every day.
We try to constantly gauge the success and appropriateness of part-time provision. Using regular questionnaires - processed by optical mark reading systems - and other forms of regular consultation, the university has been able to tailor the modules offered to meet more appropriately the needs of lifelong learning.
The university is committed to grow and develop its part-time portfolio to meet a potentially insatiable lifelong learning culture. As a result, a number of important developments are planned for introduction in the near future. These include a more sophisticated telephone guidance and application system and a drive to harness the opportunities presented by the Internet and World Wide Web.
Next year the part-time prospectus will be available on the Web. A CD-Rom, designed to accredit prior learning and put together study programmes tailored to the needs of the individual students, will be launched in April.
Work is under way at the university on CD-Rom based personal development planners. This means that part-time students will soon be able to dovetail their professional and personal development with their modular programmes. Open learning packages with videoconferencing tutorials will not be far behind.
It is going to become increasingly difficult to define in simple terms the concept of a degree. Many more students, including school leavers will find themselves participating in a higher education system designed to facilitate part-time yet continuous learning.
The day cannot be far away when people will be entering and leaving higher education on a continuous basis in order to update and upgrade their skills and knowledge to meet the needs of a rapidly changing labour market. In effect there will be a large but stable population of students in a state of dynamic equilibrium.
Morag Arnot is in the corporate communications department, University of Paisley. This article is based on a talk to be given next week at the Scottish Council for Educational Technology's conference "Lifelong Learning in a Wired World".