The alleged benefits of information technology in higher education are to be dissected and examined with sophisticated techniques imported from the United States.
Researchers at three universities are gathering evidence that will enable the Dearing enquiry to assess the educational and economic worth of information technology in teaching and learning. They have less than four months to complete the project, but they have gained a flying start by collaborating with a US foundation that has already carried out a three-year study of the same subject.
With a first presentation to Dearing's information technology working group due in December, and a final report due next January, teams at the universities of Exeter, Bristol and Warwick are deploying special survey and analysis techniques developed in the Annenberg/CPB Foundation's Flashlight project.
Surveys will be carried out at several universities during October and November using questionnaires adapted from those used in the US. Students who have used IT in their courses will be quizzed in writing, while staff face similar questions in structured interviews.
Also imported from the US project is an economic model which analyses the costs and savings attributable to information technology. Some benefits are easily quantified. For example, if students learn faster and finish their courses sooner, their lifetime earnings are likely to be greater.
Other effects, however, are intangible. "An intangible would be, for example, when a student puts more value on a course because it seems better or more relevant because of the IT element," explained Niki Davis of the University of Exeter.
The researchers grant that it may not be possible, or wise, to put a figure on everything. "You cannot actually say a better quality course is worth Pounds 10 per student," Professor Davis said.
The research was commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Institutions have been asked to contribute "grey literature" such as internal IT policy documents and course reviews which may not be in libraries or on the Internet.
A series of seminars will conclude in January with a session for policy makers such as vice chancellors, HEFCE and the Department for Education and Employment.