Technology revolution stops at classroom doors, report says

Demos says universities have yet to realise potential of technological innovations as Government launches drive to make the UK global leader in online learning. Rebecca Attwood writes

June 23, 2009

Mobile internet and social networking have found their way into the everyday lives of those on campus but have not yet followed university students and teachers into the classroom, a think-tank has claimed.

A report published today by Demos argues that technology needs to become better ingrained into universities’ thinking about teaching and the student experience.

It came as the Government announced a new task force that will aim to make UK higher education the first choice across the world for online distance learning. In support of that, the Government also launched a £10 million match-funding scheme.

The Demos reports says many academics find it hard to envisage the possibilities technology affords, not least because they often “lack the basic skills” to use the new tools.

“Despite a rapid uptake of all the trappings of a connected world in recent years, the transfer of these technologies into a learning setting in higher education has not followed,” the report says.

The Edgeless University: Why Higher Education Must Embrace Technology argues that technology is making profound changes to the ways people can learn and research.

Universities are becoming defined by their function, not their form, and knowledge is no longer restricted by campus buildings, it explains, but this does not make institutions redundant.

“The noise of information and knowledge needs filtering; students need guidance and expertise. They also need the ‘brand value’ of institutions and the validation they provide. Universities have to capitalise on the connections and relationships made possible by the new information technologies,” the report says.

It suggests that the value of universities lies in their “institutional capital” – “the spaces they create for learning, the validation they provide for learning and research, and the returns people get from it”.

Get strategic

So far, investment in technology in higher education has been driven by the initiative of enterprising academics and advocates within institutions. The next stage of investment must be “more strategic”, the report asserts.

Universities could work towards new kinds of accreditation that would allow those engaged in informal learning to validate their progress, it suggests.

It calls for government policy to help higher education institutions develop new ways of offering education seekers affiliation and accreditation, such as shorter “pick-and-mix” courses.

Technology, the think-tank argues, provides universities with the means to accommodate the increasing diversity of students’ learning needs, and institutions “could make far greater use” of tools such as Twitter and online forums like the StudentRoom to better understand the student experience.

The fact that today’s students arrive at university having already “assimilated the internet and connectivity into their everyday lives” demands new learning and teaching techniques, it believes.

Although it offers examples of good practice, Demos’ report argues that innovations in learning are “by no means the norm”.

“Some institutions already share knowledge and communicate with their students in alternative ways, opening up new approaches to learning and research. Some universities distribute lecture recordings for free on iTunes U, or use virtual learning environments to complement modules and courses. Some are experimenting with bringing learning to virtual worlds such as Second Life… But these examples do not add up to a sector-wide appreciation of the role technology could have in the future of higher education,” the report states.

However, collaborative learning tools, voting machines, interactive games, online support and other new technologies cannot just be “dumped” into classroom settings, it warns.

The vision thing

“Time, effort and support are needed to make them effective. While technology opens up many new possibilities, matching these possibilities with a vision for teaching and learning is the real challenge. Being able to develop new ways of teaching depends on the capacity to experiment. That requires resources, incentives and time, which are often not available,” the report says.

Demos calls for technology advocates in universities to be given “far greater” recognition for their teaching and leadership.

It also backs a culture of open publishing, shared resources and open course material.

“The sector should capitalise on the work of institutions such as University College London and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to distribute their content as widely as possible. There should be investment to promote the sharing of resources and the creation of stores of resources from institutions in the UK,” the report says.

But it also notes that “one of the greatest challenges” facing the knowledge economy today is “reconciling openness and collaboration with competition”.

Task force for transformation

The task force announced by the Government today will be chaired by Dame Lynne Brindley, the chief executive of the British Library. It will be backed by a new Open Learning Innovation Fund of up to £10 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England; because it is a competitive match-funding scheme, is worth up to £20 million in total.

The Government hopes that universities will collaborate with each other and with the private and third sectors to bid for money “to develop projects to help transform the way people can get a degree”.

In a statement, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said the fund could help groups of universities “pursue new business opportunities” and promote online learning and the development of open resources.

“Universities will also be able to develop greater expertise in online teaching and create centres of excellence for the delivery of online learning,” the statement said.

The Government said it would continue to develop the role of The Open University as a national resource “so that all universities can benefit from the OU’s specialist expertise, developed through public funding”.

Joining Dame Lynne on the task force will be Martin Bean, the next vice-chancellor of the OU, and senior representatives from Microsoft, the British Council, Hefce, the Joint Information Systems Committee and Universities UK. The BBC has agreed to advise the task force when appropriate.

Led by the task force, Hefce will develop the Open Learning Innovation Fund and then consult the sector on the practical details.

David Lammy, the Higher Education Minister, said: “Advances such as 3G, webcasts and Web 2.0 will allow UK universities to reach out to communities as far flung as Africa and Hong Kong and to deliver high-quality, student-centred higher education across the globe.

“The use of mobile technologies such as PDAs and MP3 players means that this can be done at a time and place that is convenient for students wherever they are in the world.

“This Open Learning Innovation Fund will help institutions develop new initiatives and exploit new opportunities to ensure that we remain at the forefront of online distance learning as the international market develops.”

Dame Lynne said: “I am delighted to have been asked to chair the task force and to consider the many opportunities for UK higher education to excel in online learning and meet the changing demands of students.

“The British Library is itself committed to innovative, high-quality digital services, including public and commercial partnerships, and I look forward to making recommendations for action to stimulate growth in this important area.”

• Read the full Demos report at

• Twitter tag #edge09

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