Open Eye: New Technology And The OU - Be open to the future - but remain open to all

The pace of change is relentless, but it cannot become exclusive, says Eamonn Harding

Have you ever wondered what makes the Open University tick ? Stephen Fry once said: "As one who has spent his entire life, man, boy and raving old dotard, in and out of educational establishments, I am the last person to offer any useful advice about them. Better leave that to politicians with no education, sense or commitment. They at least can bring an empty mind to the problem."

The Open University has no place for the uncommitted or empty minds. From a student perspective, the Open University ticks through those with whom they have the most regular contact the 7,000 associate lecturers acting as their personal tutors and academic counsellors, and delivering the courses developed in the academic units.

The wide background of these mainly part-time staff enhances and enriches what the University can offer. Many are active in research in universities and in industry, some are international experts, and all are available to students through a wide range of provision from face to face tutorials to electronic conferences. The learning opportunities emergent are an immense advantage to the whole institution. But in future, what will constitute a learning opportunity?

Face to face contact, an electronic conference, the Internet?

The pace of change in the University is relentless as it influences and responds to the ever changing environment in Higher Education. Associate Lecturers influence this through the University consultative and management structures.

There is an Irish proverb which, translated, means If you lose an hour in the morning, you will be looking for it all day. I have gained a deeper understanding of this during my year as chair of the Associate Lecturers Committee. The job would be unthinkable without the electronic communication systems of today.

How will the future associate lecturer use new technology? Courses with strong Internet elements are already in presentation (You, Your computer and the Net) where most of the student interaction will be by electronic means and asynchronous in nature. But traditional methods of course delivery must not be overlooked or lost.

I expect many of you share my distaste of the competition for space on the train table as the laptops edge out my books and papers. I use both myself, but appropriately I hope. Traditional delivery methods will remain appropriate for some years, yet with technological advances, so our society changes.

We have more written words available in a single weekend newspaper than the average person would have read in a lifetime in the 18th century. While digital communication is still immature, electronic mail has already become almost indispensable - judge for yourselves when you experience the frustration of system failures.

In the commercial sector there is already a bewildering array of media provision. When fibre optics arrive in every home, then the real communications revolution will have arrived.

The OU needs to be at the driving edge of these emergent technologies, with an understanding of how new media can best be used for educational purposes.

Years have been spent trying to undo the image of the Open University student glued to the television set at all sorts of unearthly hours, but digital technologies will offer presentational possibilities, impossible and unimagined until now, that might yet reinforce the old image.

Relentless innovation in technology means large electronics enterprises count on product life cycles of less than five years. 10% of all UK patents last year were in the telecommunications sector. In this environment, aspects of the Associate Lecturer role will have to change, in ways that are yet to be thought through, let alone understood.

The philosopher Max Frisch defined technology in Homo Faber as: "the knack of so arranging the world that we need not experience it". Can a University operate without students experiencing the world outside of their own home? Will future students want to meet each other and their tutor face to face?

Social change has followed technological change through the ages. It could be argued that cars have removed opportunities to meet on the street or at the bus stop, television has brought entertainment into the home and led to the decline of wider community activities, and it is feasible that the Internet will further reduce social interaction as more and more services are available through the home computer.

Banking has already felt the effects as most transactions become electronic, and shopping is following fast. Electronic methods replace people in jobs and that which constitutes work changes. People can get left behind or become excluded, and the effects of exclusion are felt.

As cars replaced buses in villages, out of town supermarkets replaced village shops. Those without cars bore the brunt of the loss, and the nature of villages themselves changed from local working communities to weekend dormitories. So the village school becomes unsustainable, the pub struggles to find new markets and the village community changes.

Emotive, yes I know, but an illustration of how poorly understood the effects of technological change can be at an integrated system level. There are lessons to be learned for a University reliant on a vibrant and active community. We are creating a new technologically rich elite and must be sure to continue provision for those without any possibility of access to the technology.

In short, the Open University needs to retain that for which it is known - supported open learning for all - and we need to know how the student of the future will define this.

The problems are far from solved, and are likely to be high on the agenda for some years as the Open University finds its place in leading distance education into the digital technology era. Empty minds and lack of commitment could relegate the Open University to a minority provider in the face of the global competition to come.

Eamonn Harding, deputy chair of the Associate Lecturers Committee, is a Member of the Institute of Physics and a Chartered Physicist. He graduated with 1st Class Honours through the OU and joined as a tutor counsellor in 1989. He has tutored first year technology.

He served as Chair of the Associate Lecturers committee until February 1998 and is currently Deputy Chair.

He has had recent experience as a student, having gained a French Diploma through the Open University in 1997.

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