'Full-time students will become a rare breed'

Helena Pozniak looks at how technology will shape learning

Distance-learning via video conferencing has been described as about as inspiring as watching bad TV. So when universities and colleges vie to promote their use of technology in teaching, you might be forgiven a sceptical sneer.

In fact, educational technology has moved on, in both quality and availability. It's no longer about merely transferring information to digital form. Institutions are getting to grips with its vast potential for collaborative learning; from interactive "real life" medical emergencies to revision chat rooms, live "webinars" with worldwide experts and online personal tutorials. Students who've never known life without technology now have the access and aptitude to adapt to flexible learning.

"Education has shifted emphasis; we've realised what a great resource student/teacher collaboration is," says Professor Andrew Middleton, senior lecturer and part of Sheffield Hallam University's academic innovation team. "We're using technology to encourage that interaction."

While more adventurous tutors might use virtual environments such as Second Life to engage students, bringing round more entrenched academics to the value of new technologies can be a challenge, not to mention expensive, says Middleton. But almost every college and university has already rolled out a virtual learning environment (VLE); an online interactive space shared by tutors and students, rich with resources and interactive content. After 10 years of experience, institutions have grown more adept at exploiting their potential; from collaborative projects, peer reviews, tracking work and assessments and much more. They even allow tutors to check for plagiarism.

Further education becomes less daunting with clever use of technology, educationalists agree. Studies report that disengaged students feel more motivated when using mobile technology. Many universities, the Open University (OU) in particular, contribute to resources such as Apple's iTunes U, which offers free educational material for downloading. "We are trying to make the jump to formal education less formidable," says the OU.

But it's distance learning in particular that is pushing boundaries and benefitting from improved delivery and scope; the OU has seen an unprecedented rise in young distance learners this year. Traditionally, remote students used to be more likely to drop out than those on campus; their studies lacked a social dimension.

Now several UK universities are investing in the latest collaboration technology, and entire new campuses are being built around a remote learning module. Distance learning is cheaper and more accessible, says James Quarles, general manager of the public sector at Dell, which provides education-specific technology to UK universities; almost all students have access to computers and increasingly, webcams. "Field specialists can teach at more than one institution at once when the classroom is virtual, and students can watch a lecture via laptops or mobile phones."

"We're giving students what they need as individuals, when they need it," says Duska Rosenberg, Professor in information and communication technologies at Royal Holloway, University of London. She's currently piloting a video technology from Cisco Tandberg enabling collaborative research and learning."Full-time students will become a rare breed. We're wasting huge potential if we don't seek to engage people from a broader base. We need technology sophisticated enough to be able recognise each other, like each other, laugh together, do all the things you'd do face to face."

Some universities are even considering whether they can eliminate large lecture hall courses entirely, says Quarle, replacing them with online content and smaller group sessions. "Students will come to expect that education is a holistic, open experience, tailored to their own requirements," he says.

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