Why the mouse is the cat's whiskers

August 4, 2000

In an internet society, do youreally need to go to university? asks Peter Goodhew.

Twenty students in Holland have registered to take Europe's first totally internet-based global masters degree in information technology. It was developed by an English university and an Israeli partner, who set up a Dutch company with the help of two American software providers.

This is truly the new internationalism: no one, or even two, of these partners could have done it on their own. The graduates will never need to visit the University of Liverpool, which will be awarding their degrees. All their course materials, assessment and tutorial support will be available at their home or place of work via the internet.

This and other developments are taking distance learning, as pioneered by the Open University, out to a large cohort of mid-career students who want to stay in the work place while updating their professional skills.

The approach will work, and is already working, for well-motivated and profitably-employed thirtysomething graduates.

But will it lead inexorably to the spread of undergraduate degrees with no face-to-face element? What are the pressures in this direction - the drivers in Eurospeak?

The arrival of fees has changed many potential students' perceptions about courses - if they have to pay, what and when is the payback? The payback only comes when you are in well-paid employment.

We now teach most students how to construct a business plan and it soon becomes clear that the cash flow becomes positive sooner if the outlay is minimised. Lesson one: minimise your costs and graduate fast - correction - minimise your costs and become employable fast. Who needs a degree once you have the first job in your career portfolio?

Internet technology combined with modularised degrees means that the components of a degree can be acquired at a rate controlled by the student, in a location chosen by the student. Why then should it take three or four years, and why should we require residence?

True modularisation implies the removal of almost all progression requirements - the concepts of "first year" and "second year" have no validity. Why should a student not tackle modules at school (as several US universities offer) or over the vacation, or simply at a greater rate than other students?

These possibilities are made easier if the module is, like football, a non-contact activity. Equally, it is possible to take modules at a slower rate, to accommodate the need for part-time (or full-time) work. In a modular distance-learning system there is no need for the words "full-time", "part-time", "year", "term", "session" or "semester". How delighted most of my colleagues would be to abandon these words.

So why not? What will the student need to come to the university for? The conventional answer is for the social experience and development. Hardly, all the 18-year-olds in my village seem to have tried sex, drugs and alcohol and have a well-developed social life.

What more does university offer - an intellectual challenge? This may be unwelcome news for many academics, but the majority of students do not relish an intellectual challenge. An alarming number of them seem to give up after a year at university in order to return to the society they are quite comfortable in.

Of more practical importance is access to a library. A start has been made on digitising commonly used books and articles, but it will be some time before online access to all resources is possible. The occasional trip to a university library will have to stay for a while.

Similarly, although progress is being made on virtual laboratory experiments, it will still be essential that a science or engineering student gets hands-on laboratory experience. Medical students will continue to see human beings during training, not just sections of us on the internet or virtual reality simulations - useful though these will undoubtedly be.

The other great contribution that face-to-face contact at a real university can, and must, offer is motivation. The newish role of the academic as mentor, guide and motivator has yet to be appreciated by many staff, but seems likely to be a key feature in future.

If you accept all this, then a possible pattern for the undergraduate in 2010 is to register with a local university, take the majority of classes via the internet from home but go into the university perhaps for one day a week for a meeting with their academic mentor and some hands-on sessions, followed by a social meeting (it used to be called eyeballing) with other class members.

Study will, temporarily, stop when the student feels he or she has achieved enough to get the chosen job or has run out of money and needs to refill the coffers or has lost interest or, just possibly, has accumulated the credits to gain a degree. In almost every case, students will return later - lifelong learning will not be a luxury but a necessity.

What then happens to some of the redundant university real estate? Treasury rules aside, we could sell it and pay the staff more - sounds good to me.

Peter Goodhew is pro vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool.

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