Polar bores miss multimedia point

July 5, 1996

Last month a BBC2 series on Public Property featured the building of the learning resources centre at Thames Valley University's Slough campus. Designed by Sir Richard Rogers, the building is both a study centre and an educational hub from which learning resources and communications can be distributed.

I watched the programme in the centre with staff and students closely involved in the project. Two minutes after it ended my son Daniel rang. He had watched the programme on his desk-top computer, and had produced a re-edited version and the option of a different soundtrack.

I stood in the building, and wondered what this very high-tech, high-spec environment would have to offer Dan as he continues his learning. What will his expectations be, what will he require of higher education, what experience, expertise and skills will he arrive with? To put it bluntly, how will we cope?

I am increasingly concerned about the debates on the impact of information technologies within our centre. People seem to be pigeoned-holed into two polarised camps.

The "beam-me-up, Scotties", argue for "virtual universities", in which cyberspace will determine how, what and when we learn as well as socialise, work and shop. Such people are often supported by those policy makers who believe that information technology offers a quick fix to the problems and issues facing higher education.

But the "Luddites" seem unable, or unwilling, to recognise the huge consequences for higher education of IT and communications. We have to find a way beyond this polarisation. The coming knowledge society will intensify the demands for education, training and lifelong learning. Amid the present gloom, this is good news. Higher education has a major role to play. We are in a massive growth industry.

Intensive investment in new technologies will be needed to support more expansion. Such investment will redefine the locus of a university as a community of learning. It will free education from the constraints of time and space. It affords the chance to create a distributed community of teaching and learning, drawing on the lessons learned from creating such a community of researchers.

We also have to avoid being technologically driven. The issue is how we use IT and communications media. Learning is a fundamental activity. It involves people learning from and with each other. A world of isolated students is not an education world, is not a learning community.

We need to debate the relationships between information, knowledge and learning. Accessing information is not the main purpose of the university. Creating knowledge and supporting learning is. The increasingly easy access to huge quantities of information can as easily overwhelm and disable students and staff as it can liberate and enable them.

If the investment needed is to be realised we have to face up to the key issue: is IT an "additionality" or a "substitution" (for labour power)? If IT is only an add-on we simply cannot afford it. How it is used and substituted for existing resources is a crucial issue.

Most important, we should recognise that in the emerging knowledge society, intellectuals have an opportunity to move centre stage. Education will be the condition of a successful economy, not an affordable outcome of it. In an education-driven economy, intellectuals will be in the engine room. How that position is used is crucial.

How we stimulate this debate, how we move away from the current polarisation, is also vital. In the meantime, Dan is 13 this month.

Mike Fitzgerald is vice chancellor of Thames Valley University.

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