All entries for Friday 07 October 2005

October 07, 2005

The IT revolution

Interesting piece by Alison Wolf in the Times Higher on Sept 30th. She notes that in 1991 Sir Douglas Hague, in his paper Beyond Universities, predicted that IT, and video/audio-conferencing would make universities into a less clearly defined sector. He thought that more businesses would become education providers, and that ideas would increasingly be generated and disseminated outside of traditional academic faculties.

Alison goes on to observe:-

I would put this in the "failed predictions" box. I am more intrigued by the extent to which universities still dominate higher levels of teaching and research … Across the world, people are opening and expanding universities of a most familiar kind.

She points out the obvious failed experiments; the UKeU, the University for Industry (which, far from providing a broad range of educational opportunities for all, has now morphed into learndirect, and offers beginners' IT courses and adult basic skills), and wonders "what happened to the NHS University – born 2003, died 2004?".

She's quite right, of course. Radio didn't fundamentally change the way universities work. Neither did television, nor the video recorder, despite the fairly widespread expectation in the 1970s that learning via videotape was surely a more efficient, cheaper, convenient way to gain an education. If you were building a new university right now, in 2005, you'd certainly use IT quite extensively – but it's difficult to think of a single thing that you would, or could, replace with IT. It's inconceivable that you'd decide not to bother with lecture theatres, say, because you figured you could just make all your lectures available as videos over the web. It turns out that two things which matter hugely and which strongly favour campuses, buildings, physical spaces for the people and the process of learning are:-

  1. Reputation. Choosing a university is a decision which is informed in large part by the reputation of the university – not just the quality of its teaching or research, but the quality of the institution as a whole. This is something which is very hard to discern for virtual institutions, but quite easy if you can come to the campus, look around, meet people and talk to them.
  2. Socialisation. Universities are as social as they are academic. The success of the Learning Grid at this university, for example, suggests that well designed physical spaces, while they can be augmented or supported by IT, are themselves fundamentally the best way to allow people to socialise. And socialising, be it for learning purposes or for its own sake, is part of what makes a university work, and why the Hague predictions, and many others like them in the intervening period, are unlikely to come true.

More modern takes on the same theory argue that as bandwidth gets broader and broader, the physical aspects of a campus can more closely be replicated virtually. This was the theme of the keynote at Educause which I attended last year, and wrote about then. I wonder why there is so much enthusiasm for the idea that technology will/must/does change the shape of universities?

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