Education Opinion: How the information revolution gives education the chance to be centre-stage

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The Independent Online
The debate about the impact of new technologies is a key issue in the future of higher education. It is very much at the top of the agenda for the Dearing review of higher education, which will determine the size and shape of tertiary provision into the new millennium.

But within the sector, the debate is sharply polarised. On the one hand there are the "beam-me-up-Scotty" types, who argue for virtual universities in which cyberspace will determine how, what and when we learn, as well as how we work, socialise, shop and live.

Such people are supported by policy-makers for whom technology offers a quick fix to the problems confronting higher education.

On the other hand, there are the "Luddites", unable or unwilling to recognise the huge consequences for higher education of the revolution in IT and communications. They cling to the wreckage of traditional approaches, arguing that only significant increases in resources will repair the damage inflicted on universities in the last 15 years.

We need to find a way through this impasse. The coming demands of a knowledge society will intensify the need for education, training and lifelong learning. This is good news. We are in a growth business, nationally and internationally. But how will we be able to meet the demands of this growth?

Intensive investments in new technologies will be needed to support the massive expansion in tertiary education which we need. Such investment will be the locus of a university as a community of learning. IT offers the potential to free higher education from the constraints of time and space. It affords the opportunity to create a distributed community of teachers and learners, who use new technologies not only to access resources but to communicate with each other.

We will be able to democratise higher education, offering access to learning resources for all, not just the privileged few who attend particularly well endowed universities.

New technologies offer the opportunity to transform radically the curriculum and the way we learn. Students will take responsibility for their own learning. They will learn actively, rather than in the passive mode of much of current provision. They will have access to a wealth of resources nationally and internationally to draw on, rather than being constrained by the declining facilities now available.

But we must avoid being IT-driven. The issue is how we harness technology for education, rather than how technology determines and shapes education. Learning is an essentially human activity. Face-to-face contact is fundamental. Students need personal access to each other as well as to teachers. It involves people learning from and with each other. A world of isolated students hanging off the end of a modem is not a community of learners Harnessing technologies is not an end in itself, nor does IT offer a quick fix to the issues confronting higher education in the 1990s. Accessing information is not the primary purpose of higher education. Rather, access to information through a variety of media, including personal contact, is only a precondition of a university's main purposes. Managing and applying knowledge is not the same as accessing information. The sheer quantity and diversity of information now available at the touch of a button can as easily overwhelm and disable as it can liberate and enable.

It is not access to information that counts, but what we access, how and why, how we engage critically with it. To do this we have to learn how to build our confidence in using different resources.

We need to remind ourselves of how many centuries of collective human education have gone into supporting the use of the spoken word, and the technology of the printed page. We underestimate at our peril the quantity and quality of help, support and encouragement we all need to harness new technologies, if we are to be comfortable with electronic media, and to cope with the vast amount of often undifferentiated information available.

And we need to recognise that, far from replacing the spoken word and the printed page, electronic media have caused a whole new renaissance in text, inspired by new ways of manipulating data and images on screen and digitally.

It is for these reasons that we have to move beyond the current polarised debate about IT and education. We have to face some key issues. How will the resources needed for IT,up-front and on a continuing basis, be found? IT is not a cheap alternative. Examples of significant institutional cost savings realised by the extensive academic use of new technologies are hard to find. IT adds to costs rather than facilitating cost-cuts. But we cannot afford to introduce IT simply as an expensive add-on. How far, and in what ways, new technologies can and should substitute for labour and other costs is a crucial question.

Most importantly, we need to recognise that in an emerging knowledge society, education will have the opportunity to move centre-stage. It will be the precondition for a successful economy, not an affordable outcome of it.

MIKE FITZGERALD

The author is vice chancellor of Thames Valley University.

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