Academics told they must embrace online future

Lecturers are falling behind students in the use of new technologies. John Gill reports

The evolution of the internet is fundamentally changing the nature of scholarship, and universities must exploit its potential if they are to succeed in the 21st century.

The analysis of the impact on academia of the latest internet technology, Web 2.0, was made by Brenda Gourley, vice-chancellor of The Open University, who said higher education had to be "irrevocably tied" to technology if it was to prosper.

Her comments came as the Universities Secretary John Denham announced a goal for Britain to install itself at the forefront of online learning globally.

Mr Denham told Times Higher Education: "One of the questions for the university system in Britain is how, as part of being a world-class higher education system, we can aim to be one of the leading - if not the leading - centres of online higher education in the world. I think it is that sort of ambition we need to be setting ourselves."

Speaking at the "Global Perspective: Our International Future" conference in Nottingham, Professor Gourley said the web was "central to scholarship in all its forms, and will be even more so in time to come".

Highlighting its role in enabling collaboration, which she said was "fundamental" to research scholarship, she said: "We now have the tools to connect and talk and incorporate views and knowledge from all over the world."

She also noted that the gap between students' and academics' use of technology continued to widen, adding: "Students have embraced technologies that remain a mystery to many academic staff... there are many webware tools that have clear potential for education, yet faculty remain either unaware or have difficulty in integrating them into educational material - this is clearly a problem."

Refuting the argument that, with so much information available online the academic's role was reduced, she said faculty were "navigators through the wealth of resources".

"Navigators, of course, need to be properly trained and equipped for such a role," she said. "It is clear that the design of the learning experience has grown a lot more complicated - and a lot more interesting."

On the prospects for research, Professor Gourley also anticipated opportunities, with access to resources and tools and the possibilities for collaboration all hugely expanded.

"Never before have we had unleashed, over such a short period of time, quite so many research questions. Even the most jaded of our number must surely be energised by the possibilities and potential and, of course, not the least of these questions are pedagogical," she said.

For institutions, all this requires a rethink of performance management, training and investment in technology and virtual-learning resources, Professor Gourley said.

"Higher education in this century has to be irrevocably tied to the technology... we will have to be clearer about our notions of scholarship," she said.

"But more important than this is our engagement with the very act of sustaining, strengthening and deepening scholarship - the very thing that drives our endeavour and that we prize so highly."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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