Former physics researcher and mathematics teacher Hania Allen is set to spearhead an information technology revolution at St Andrews University.
Dr Allen, the recently appointed vice-principal for information (and first woman on the university executive), said her role was "to make sure information flows properly, securely and easily round the university, available to the people who need it when and how they need it, and not to people who shouldn't have it".
A major part of her work will be to support teaching and learning. St Andrews is advertising for staff for a new, centralised teaching and learning support unit, which will include a learning technologist whose role will be to investigate how technology can be used to help academics and students.
Some £100,000 from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council over the next three years has been earmarked both for the unit and for teaching fellowships and bursaries.
The unit's work includes setting up a "managed learning environment", giving staff an easy means of bringing together anything they might want to do online. Students will, for example, be able to access lecture notes through the web, communicate with tutors, use chat rooms and computer conferencing with other students, and upload essays to be marked.
The central unit will ensure that information from different disciplines is presented in a comparable form to help students, since in the broad-based Scottish system they will take a number of different subjects.
Dr Allen stressed that there was no intention to reduce face-to-face teaching. "There is a strong feeling out there, not necessarily in this university, that technology will replace lectures. Our firm belief is that this is a lot of rubbish. One of St Andrews' strengths is a very strong emphasis on face-to-face interaction. We've gone heavily down the road of small group teaching, and going away from that is not part of our strategy."
She admitted that the value of computers in teaching was most obvious in science subjects, where they could, for example, be used to simulate experiments that would be impossible to do in the lab. There could be more scepticism in the arts, an area in which St Andrews is particularly strong. "This is very much a case of an appropriate use of technology," Dr Allen said. "If staff really feel the systems have nothing to offer, there is absolutely no obligation at all to use them."
But she said there were "pockets of enthusiasm' among staff throughout the university that should help promote the potential benefits.
History tutor Paul Vysny, for instance, found the dozen students in his seminar group were reticent about talking in front of one another, and discussion in the weekly session usually warmed up just as the hour came to an end. So he set up a computer conferencing package to enable his students to carry on discussion of a particular topic online. Students in residences at St Andrews are online and can do the necessary research at a time that suits them. Dr Vysny can also access the discussion from home, intervening when necessary.
"The students have been very enthusiastic, and because they had to have a reasoned response that was written down, it helped their analytical and writing skills," Dr Allen said. "It was asynchronous, not face to face in real time, but when they came back for the face to face, he couldn't shut them up. All of the discussions can be kept together, and next year's students can read them and add to them."
St Andrews has been partnering Glasgow University and other institutions in a pilot project to build more secure but easily managed networks. The university's various information systems grew independently of one another, Dr Allen said.
She aims to simplify the systems through IT to free staff time and to streamline the university intranet, which has a complex range of security systems demanding separate log-ins.
"What we're aiming towards is a system where people will have only one user name and password."