Sunday, 26 September 2010

Open learning and new technology

According to the latest higher education conference (September, 2010) held at the OECD, Paris, the traditional university is coming under threat from the new challenges posed by open learning and new technology. Supposedly, the entire 'structure of the modern university' is facing a massive challenge, and we are apparently far too preoccupied with our more immediate funding worries to pay any attention. But I do wonder whether this apocalyptic vision of the university sector is quite right, and speaking personally, and more positively, I actually think that the traditional model of the university still has a lot going for it. It's perfectly true that we shouldn't go on doing something just because it's 'what we've always done', but in the case of higher education it does seem to me that how we do things does in important ways accord well with modern theories of learning.

So what about all this wonderful new technology, what can this do for us? By technology, of course, people mean the internet and modern IT facilities; and for sure they already make a massive difference in universities, not so much in what we do but in how we deliver our teaching. Thus even the most traditional of courses will have most teaching material on line, together with follow up exercises, essay questions, past examination papers and other useful resources. Indeed most of our students take such provision for granted these days, not unreasonably. Mostly the material we teach is made available on the university intranet, specifically on our virtual learning environment (VLE), rather than being posted for completely open access. What this means is that within the framework of a very traditional structure of university degree programmes, the most modern of IT services are now widely used to enhance our teaching, and hopefully to enhance the teaching experience as perceived by our students.

Such an application of modern IT facilities, however, in no way detracts from the fact that we still operate with quite a traditional model of the university - as a community of scholars. Thus although we make heavy use of IT, we still think that our students need to talk to each other and with members of academic staff. I suspect that only quite a small fraction of our students could manage successfully without the support and structure provided by our standard degree programmes. We don't just see our students as individual learners, but as part of a learning community. For most, this is vital.

For more mature students, including some of those who are very sure what they want to do and who are strongly self motivated, open learning is probably an attractive alternative to the traditional university; and the numbers of such students will undoubtedly rise as more and more people seek flexible approaches to study and learning. Fine. But that is surely a far cry from the claim that the traditional university has pretty much had its day.

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