Students 'let down' by the academic Luddites

Survey finds that academy is failing to capitalise on new technology. Sarah Cunnane reports

August 12, 2010

Research from the US Department of Education suggests that students studying online tend to outperform those receiving face-to-face tuition; The Open University in the UK has topped 20 million downloads on iTunes U; and, worldwide, social media has overtaken pornography as the number one activity on the web.

However, recent statistics from the US show that the academy may be failing to capitalise on the potential offered by new technology.

The Faculty Survey of Student Engagement, conducted annually by academics at Indiana University, Bloomington, last year included questions on the use of technology by lecturers for the first time.

The results show that while 72 per cent of respondents used course- management systems such as Blackboard, many did not use any other technology in their academic lives.

Some 70 per cent did not use plagiarism-detection software and 84 per cent did not use blogs. In each case, a small percentage claimed not to know that such things existed (see graphic, below).

The use of technology in higher education is becoming a political as well as an academic issue in the US; the Office of Educational Technology, part of the Department of Education, has published a draft of its National Educational Technology Plan 2010 calling for "revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering" in the field.

Mark Greenfield, director of web services at the University of Buffalo and a higher education web consultant, said that although the Indiana survey took responses from a small sample of universities, the findings were an accurate reflection of the sector as a whole.

"I think there is a faction of faculty that is resistant to this kind of change," he said. "There is a sense that students need to adapt to their style rather than vice versa."

Writing for Times Higher Education in 2006, Terry Eagleton, distinguished professor of English literature at Lancaster University and visiting professor at the National University of Ireland, Galway, championed Luddite attitudes in the academy and said that an excess of information had led to academics "being robbed of the most precious medium of reflection, which is time".

Edward Tenner, author of Why Things Bite Back (1997) and Our Own Devices (2003) and a visiting scholar at Rutgers and Princeton universities, said it was "very possible" that teaching or scholarship would improve if more academics used technology. However, he agreed with Professor Eagleton that the time it took to learn about technological advances could impinge on other areas of scholarly life.

"If an academic invests their time in mastering this or that computer program, they are spending less time on something else," he said. "So many are sceptical that these particular things are worth their while when they could just do their research instead."

Professor Tenner added that researchers will often be so immersed in their field that they will not feel the need to use technological tools to help them find academics and papers in areas related to their own, but he questioned whether this was a sensible attitude to adopt.

"If someone isn't making full use of a tool, even if they don't need to in their work, is it really fair to students if they can't help them learn to use something that, for the students, is essential?" he asked.

Mr Greenfield said faculty should be more willing to "move outside their comfort zone", but added that universities had responsibilities, too.

"I am always amazed when I talk to faculty about how antiquated some of their computing equipment is," he said. "On some campuses, there are programmes that help faculty to use technology, but they are too small. There needs to be a lot more support and resource in this area."

Professor Tenner said the "mental effort" required by staff who had been "educated in an age of information scarcity" and who were now "adapting to an age of information abundance" made the adoption of technology in the academy difficult.

However, Mr Greenfield said it was essential that this was overcome before countries such as the US slipped behind their more technologically savvy rivals.

"We need to do a better job of educating our students," he argued, "and one of the best ways we can do that is by embracing new technology."

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