Technology must learn how to teach

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The Independent Online
PETER COCHRANE has a sales pitch. He is head of research for British Telecom, and BT wants to sell electronic kit to potential growth markets which have yet to mature. He is worth listening to, none the less. For, as we reported in yesterday's paper, Professor Cochrane has a vision of how our universities will be transformed by electronics.

Will the universities of the next century, he asked a group of leading academics, have buildings, libraries and laboratories . . . or even students? Or will the education industry use technology far more intensively than it does at present, not just to enable students to find their way through the mass of available information, but to help them to learn? Libraries, he suggested, would disappear for science and engineering, and even arts subjects would rely more on screen-based information than on books. A computerised Gray's Anatomy, he suggested, might not only carry the text of the book but combine it with video and speech.

Getting the interaction between technology and higher education right is an enormously important issue for this country. Education is one of the world's great growth industries, and we are second only to the United States in the attractiveness of our top universities in that market (even future presidents come to study here). Yet the prospects are even brighter, for technology has leapt forward just at the moment when the education sector is undergoing large structural changes.

There are at least four such changes. One is the extent to which schools and universities have expanded over the past 10 years: the proportion of students both staying on at school after 16 and going into higher education has doubled. True, the total number of young people has declined, so the proportionate increase is greater than the absolute one; but it still implies a sharp rise in productivity - without any significant increase in input.

Next, there has been a shift to 'whole life' learning. We still tend to think of education as a one-shot process which takes place between the ages of five and 22, but now a much larger proportion of our education actually takes place during adulthood. There has been an explosion in educational holidays, 'cultural' courses for the retired, 'awaydays' for executives and language or computer courses for adults.

Third, the gap between training and education has blurred. Children are now taught skills at school which a generation ago would have been considered training. We do not yet require teenagers to pass a driving test before leaving school, but we do teach them word-processing. Company training also goes beyond the job. Rover Group, which spends pounds 35m a year on education and training, helps employees with every form of education from remedial maths to funding for PhDs.

Finally, education is beginning to follow other service industries in becoming demand-led, rather than production-driven. In other words, people buying educational services are determining what they wish to learn, rather than leaving the suppliers, in particular the universities, to provide what they deem appropriate to teach. Non-Oxbridge universities are ripping their courses to bits and reshaping them (often in modular form) to try to attract the better students; even Oxford now offers an MBA course.

The real question is how technology can be used to help the education sector to help itself to make these structural shifts? In a sense Professor Cochrane is coming at the issue from the wrong end, for he is a producer. He is saying: we have this wonderful technology and it will change your lives. The better approach, the one adopted by any successful company, is to say: we must identify what the customer wants, then use technology to hold down the cost and improve the product.

Let's apply this approach to those four changes noted above. The first issue is: how can new technology relieve the pressure on finite resources caused by rising numbers of undergraduates? With the right technology, a student can question the information on an interactive CD, not just read it, and scarce lecturer time could be used more efficiently.

It should also be possible to use other technologies (video-conferencing, perhaps) to enable the very best teachers to reach a wider audience. In theory, universities could even teach part of their course at a distance without students having to attend for the full year. But that would cut across the tenet that the use of new technology should be driven by demand: few students would willingly forego the social aspects of being at university.

The growth of 'whole life' learning, perhaps, creates more opportunities for using new technologies for the simple reason that adults generally have less time to travel to universities. The universities can therefore do what commercial companies are seeking to do: use telecommunications both to replace travel and to deliver products to a 'mail-order' market. (The Open University is a mail-order business, but the technology enables old-established institutions to reach new markets, rather as First Direct and Direct Line have enabled Midland Bank and Royal Bank of Scotland to expand.)

Of the narrowing gap between education and training there is little to add, for the training business has been quick to grab whatever kit is available, while entertainers such as John Cleese have made their fortunes not so much by their film and television work, but by their training videos.

The fourth point - that education is becoming demand-led - suggests the limits, rather than the opportunities, of electronics in the teaching world. The brutal question is: do people really want to look at screens all day or would they prefer to be taught by real human beings with whom they can have a drink in the pub afterwards?

You are reading a product that reached its present form, more or less, 150 years ago. If the newspaper had been invented afterscreen- based information it would have been welcomed as the new disposable, lightweight, pre-edited substitute - rather as the Biro and Pentel have taken over from the fountain pen. We use electronics to produce the newspaper, but the form of the product is determined by the buyer. That should be how electronics is used by the education business, too.