IT is coming of age in higher education. As Kam Patel writes, it is no longer just for email, it is the backbone of an electronic academic community Within just a few years, computers have quietly pervaded virtually all aspects of university life. From management and administration through to teaching and research, computers have assumed a critical role in shaping the culture of institutions. Their use can save time, effort and money. Just as important, computers have the potential to add new dimensions to work by staff and students.
At the London Institute, which has five art and design colleges scattered around central London, investment in IT has been high on the agenda of rector Sir William Stubbs. In the past few years, millions of pounds have been spent to create a digital nervous system to improve communications among the sites.
But this is just one benefit. The technology has also led to greater efficiency in administration: "The IT systems have affected much, from constructing computer files that follow students' progress through to raising fees," Sir William said. "Computers enable many of these functions to be carried out in a much more sophisticated and efficient way than was possible with the old manual approaches."
Sir William said digital technology is also opening new areas of research in art and design, fresh lines of discourse that five years ago would have been unthinkable. Students at the institute are now gaining PhDs in multimedia art and design, and a flurry of new-media programmes have been launched to accommodate the explosion in interest among students and staff.
Not surprisingly, the email facility is one of the basic offerings most used by students and staff. Email is "especially important" for the institute's 2,500 overseas students as it allows them to keep in touch with friends and family at home, Sir William said. Students are also gaining unprecedented access to museums and galleries through the web, which Sir William believes can only help enhance their work and critical awareness. "Computers are proving themselves to be very powerful in helping us move away from learning programmes that are didactic towards a model that is more student-centred," he said.
Academics themselves are using new digital tools to sharpen their presentation and teaching methods. Sir William said: "Computers are leading our staff to rethink their ways of teaching. They may just kick off with an email facility, but that is often sufficient to drive them into exploring other facilities that are open to them, and to use them to create new kinds of teaching resources."
Much still remains to be done. The institute's size alone provides a considerable challenge. It is the world's largest art and design institution.
Across its constituent colleges, spread over 21 sites, are more than 14,000 academics and more than 26,000 students, including undergraduates, part-time students and researchers.
"Rather interesting" is how Rob Willet, the institute's operations manager, describes the problem of creating an IT infrastructure. "We have come a long way over the past few years, but one of our major tasks for the next few is to increase the number of computers." The institute already has about 2,000 units, but it wants to meet Dearing's recommendation that there should be at least one for every five full-time equivalent students. Mr Willet reckons that 2,000-3,000 more units are needed to close in on that target.
To help accelerate the take-up of computers across the institute and to study applications of IT, a department for IT research and development was created two years ago. The 15-strong department is led by Fariba Farshad, who said the broad mission of her team is to create an "electronic community" among academics and students at the institute. "With art and design it can be a problem because academics in the field, in general, have not been exposed to computers as much as those in engineering or science. But IT take-up is rapidly accelerating," she said.
The department began its work by shifting routine personnel, finance, academic affairs services and telephone directories onto the the institute's intranet, giving staff anywhere 24-hour access to the data. It has also started developing newsletters for students covering things such as events and competitions, and the student service is now online.
At the same time, Ms Farshad's team has been developing computer-based course materials. The institute is engaged in a teaching and learning technology project to develop a Digitial Video Disc that helps students improve their drawing skills and visual literacy. Other collaborators on the project include Falmouth School of Art and Design, Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication and Ulster University. The department has also created a "virtual newsroom" for journalism students at the institute's London College of Printing. The program mimics the compilation of a news story on a newspaper.
For work such as this, the department won an award from the British Interactive Multimedia Association.
Ms Farshad believes that art and design colleges have much to offer in the development of computer courseware across all disciplines. "Until recently, (courseware) was very text-based and produced mainly by traditional universities, which prized content; the visual interface was not considered that important," she said. "But you cannot engage young people with these packages unless you have very high-quality visual imagery and animation, and this is encouraging artists and designers to get more involved in the online medium."
There are, of course, limitations to the use of computers in art and design.
The field is based on practice, and Ms Farshad said digital tools are not always applicable for teaching and learning. "These things are there to help support and enhance learning and teaching, not as a direct substitute. The materials are there to help students to, in a sense, learn how to learn and to help free tutors so they can give more specialist, individual support to students."
Richard Francis, learning technology officer at Oxford Brookes University, echoes Ms Farshad's warning. "It is a complete fallacy to think the teacher's role declines with the increasing use and availability of computers. It is a dangerous misconception to think face-to-face teaching is not important."
At Oxford Brookes - which earlier this year won awards for its IT systems development and management from both the European University Information Systems organisation and the UK's Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association - considerable emphasis has been placed on creating a "one-stop shop" for students using computers. Via the university's intranet, the students can gain access to all information pertinent to their courses, including coursework, seminar details and online discussions. Students also have access to the internet. A goal for next year is to exploit Oxford Brookes's modular approach to enable students to "build" their own courses.
Mr Francis said that the "groupware" - a virtual environment into which staff can pour course resources and information in multimedia format for students to access - has been central to the success of IT development at Oxford Brookes.
"It is helping us to cope with more students without being handicapped by a lack of physical resources." Computers are also helping to improve the efficiency with which staff communicate with each other and students, he said.
The university has 500 pooled computers and a number of "breakfast bar" computers, which are used mostly for email. Most computers are available 24 hours a day, allowing usage to be spread so that it is rare for anyone to have difficulty finding a free unit. The university constantly upgrades its capacity, and its expenditure on IT systems has increased greatly in recent years, running into millions of pounds.
Richard Huggins, senior lecturer in politics at Oxford Brookes, said there has been a "dramatic" shift in a few years from staff making little or no use of computers to their being completely embedded in their daily activities. He said: "Internet, email and word processing are all commonplace now and their use is leading both students and staff to experiment more with the capabilities of computers." He, like Mr Francis, believes that the next big development is going to be virtual resource-based learning that complements and enhances the more conventional, physical resources used by lecturers.
Mr Huggins, who is also coordinator of undergraduate courses in politics, has seen computers and the worldwide web make a big impact on his discipline.
"Access to official documents, say from the European Union or national governments, is much easier than it used to be thanks to the internet, and it has benefited staff and students. It does not mean we get everything we want, but at least what we do have access to is material that is often quite up to date. It saves having to post or fax requests for info or even having to go there in person to carry out the research. Sometimes, of course, it is essential to visit an archive or information centre." Online course books developed for his subject carry hotlinks to recommended sites for more research and analysis. On the downside, there is weak material on the web. Mr Huggins believes it is vital to arm students with critical awareness.
Mr Francis said some of his colleagues are under the impression he advocates replacing the face-to-face tutor with online teaching. But he said: "I see the world of IT as an addition to conventional methods of teaching. I cannot see how increasing interactivity in teaching - which computers are helping us to achieve with online material and online discussions - can be bad. I think it is excellent to have the combination of the old with the new."
Digital, page 11 Exam concerns, page 36