This week a group of university heads called on British higher education to increase its use of new technology to cope with the rising number of students. In California, lecturers and students are already boldly going in this direction. Nothing better illustrated the advantages of new technology over personal contact than scouring Maidenhead for an address on a winter's evening with the taxi meter ticking away.
I eventually arrived, cold and dishevelled, at the offices of GPT Video Systems to find the group of students and tutors at California State University (CSU) thousands of miles away looking relaxed and warm. The clip of a 'tele-lecture' and discussion on home economics they showed me during our transatlantic conversation was not particularly slick, but conveyed the feel of a live class, involving students both in the classroom and miles away.
'I am really excited about this technology because I live 60 miles from campus,' said Sandy Coulter, a graduate student, who has completed a 'distance course'. This seemed to be the first time that she had met her teacher, Doris Beard, in person. 'Before this she was a movie star.'
Ms Beard said that the lecturer had to be well organised. 'You can't wing it. To use the medium effectively, the instructor must be more prepared in advance.' There may be video or other background material to be arranged, technicians to liaise with, as well as the attention of a distant audience to hold.
Students can receive videos of a talk and record live lectures at home. Or, in a more sophisticated video-conferencing set-up, they can join class discussions and control the camera from the receiving end (as we did from Maidenhead).
The savings in time and travel costs for both staff and students that video conferencing and televised lectures can deliver are obvious to an institution the size of the University of California, with 360,000 students on 20 campuses spanning nearly a thousand miles. But if this sort of technology was anyway desirable, the planned expansion of higher education in California is now making it a necessity. The university wants to have more than 500,000 students by the year 2005 and knows it will not get the funding to build the equivalent of a 10,000-student campus each year until then.
Professor Jack Stockman, of CSU's School of Business, said that video conferencing was already well established for staff meetings, but has much greater potential. 'Your imagination is the only limit.' He speculates that star teams of academics may emerge, teams that combine leading researchers with good teachers who can exploit the new media effectively, either producing videos and teaching materials, or contracting to 'perform' a course of tele-lectures. 'The one system that is not changing quickly is academe. We are calcified, to say the least. But if we don't change, the private sector will take over,' said Professor Stockman.
Video conferencing developed in response to the demand from industry for more cost-effective ways of sharing expertise. It cuts travel costs and saves time and it is available as and when people need it in their offices or factories. Kevin Waterhouse, marketing manager of GPT Video Systems, said Ford's Scorpio model was brought on to the market six months earlier than it would have been without video conferencing.
Universities in the UK, particularly those spread over several sites, are showing an interest; Anglia Polytechnic University - which has sites in Chelmsford, Cambridge, Brentwood and Danbury - has three video-conferencing units, including a camera, screen and control console, and is looking to expand its network. The equipment costs pounds 30,000 for each unit and around pounds 200 a hour to run, but costs are coming down and GPT is predicting desktop versions within 18 months.
It is not just the pressure of increasing numbers that has provoked calls for change. As the higher education net widens, universities are taking in an increasingly diverse set of entrants, many of whom do not have the academic background that teachers have been used to assuming; they may be less strongly motivated, or they may be mature students lacking in paper qualifications; they may be studying part- time, trying to fit academic work around a job or family responsibilities. All these students need more individual attention, not less. Yet staffing and resources in universities are unlikely to be increased substantially. New technology can allow students to study in their own homes, at their own pace. It not only makes a lecture go farther, but should leave staff more time for individual or small-group tuition.
The Committee of Scottish University Principals declared this week: 'A fundamental appraisal of, and a radical approach to, the problems of teaching and learning in mass higher education is now necessary.' Is new technology the answer?
The group's report, inspired and written largely by Professor Alistair MacFarlane, principal and vice-chancellor of Heriot- Watt University, Edinburgh, said that there was an urgent need to foster and introduce innovative approaches to tackle the 'formidable problem' facing the universities, how to teach greatly increased numbers of students.
New technology, however, is only part of a radical solution that he proposed: 'The greatest challenge is to persuade a majority of those involved in higher education to see teaching as their prime activity, and as one posing intellectual challenges and offering rewards comparable to those of standard research.'
A Teaching and Learning Board should be set up at an initial cost of pounds 50m a year, argued Professor MacFarlane, who believes that the present schemes to
introduce new technology into
universities are too small and unco-ordinated. The proposed board would foster large-scale production of teaching resources which could be shared between
While the academics debate, Mr Waterhouse of GPT Video Systems has no doubts about the potential of the new technology. 'It changes the way people do business and I think it will change the way people are educated.'
'Teaching and Learning in an Expanding Higher Education System', the report of a working party of the Committee of Scottish University Principals, costs pounds 5 from PO Box 142, Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AH. Summary free with SAE.
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