When worlds collide3 May 2010
This year’s annual JISC conference was at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, bringing 750 delegates in from sun-splashed Westminster Abbey to the digital caverns of future media. The opening plenary was by Martin Bean, the kinetic Vice-Chancellor of the Open University (OU). Of course, the OU has a pitch to sell on the centrality of digital media to Higher Education, and it does a very good job of providing access to a large number of learners, to an enviable level of student satisfaction. It would, though, be a mistake to see Martin Bean’s message. His case is directed to universities in general, and needs to be taken very seriously.
In essence, Martin Bean’s argument is this: Our sector has three key drivers – globalisation, an ever-widening demand for participation (“massification”) and increasing recourse to privatisation as governments fail to keep up with costs and demands. At the same time, the world of work is changing rapidly and we are swamped with exponential increases in information, which must be interpreted through our curricula as meaningful knowledge. To an ever increasing degree, the students we teach have never known a world without digital media and accessible, and increasingly mobile, devices. They are accustomed to working across multiple challenges, expect resources to be free, and blend digital lifestyles with digital work-styles. In Martin Bean’s succinct formulation, education is colliding with social networking, which is exciting, fast and very disruptive.
This is a compelling argument, which either grabs the imagination or sends shivers of horror down one’s spine. The problem, though, is that it pretty well stops at this point. So informal learning is gaining momentum and force like a dust cloud sweeping towards a citadel. But what happens when open, byte-sized bits of knowledge come up against the need for sequence and structure, for curricula that build systematically on prior understanding and insight, and formal accreditation? And while potential students are indeed social networkers who can access open learning resources in a few keystrokes, they are still clamouring to enter the citadel of the conventional university, which is why demand for places is up more than 15% this year and some 200,000 qualified young people will be turned away from the doors of the academy in September this year.
And this lacuna in our thinking and planning is indeed Martin Bean’s point. He is asking us to connect the momentum and enthusiasm that drives the application of new digital media in higher education with the more traditional business of providing structure and organisation to learning and teaching. This, I believe, will be the key issue for the use of new technologies in higher education over the next few years.
JISC is the major provider of media services for UK Higher Education. Conference details, as well as Martin Bean’s presentation, can be found at www.jisc.ac.uk.