JISC10: Pre-conference debate: A perfect vision – technology priorities for higher education

A packed house, a thought-provoking panel of experts and a refreshingly interactive take on the traditional debate paved the way for a lively session on the priorities facing higher education.

Topics ranging from leadership and digital literacy to the cloud and open access and were explored not only in the room but also in the wider world, through a live stream and a Twitter backchannel, and not only through the usual presentations, questions and answers but also via electronic voting pads used by the in-room audience in response to questions posed by the chair and panellists.

The panel introduced themselves and their perspectives on the issues facing higher education with short presentations. Professor Cliff Hardcastle set out the need for universities to engage with business and described how technology is helping his institution, Teeside, work more closely with the local and regional commercial and industrial sector. He asked the audience what they thought were the three most significant challenges facing a university that wishes to become fully business engaged. University senior management teams should listen up: the top two both related to internal failings rather than external pressures: inadequate understanding (26%) and lack of business culture (23%).

Professor William Dutton took the emphasis away from institutions and towards what he describes as “networked individuals”. He argued that institutions are not providing the lead – they are already overstretched and have more students than they can admit so where’s the incentive for moving ahead innovatively? Researchers will go to the internet first for information, not their library – “they go to a space of flows not a space of places”. Students are moving out of institutional arenas through open access, open wifi, open repositories. We should think about what the users need and not try to reinforce the institutional model, argued Dutton. “Do not try to fit students into institutional boxes,” he urged. “We should not be trying to do anything in the classroom that can be better done online.”

He ended on a strong note: “in the coming years, HE/FE will not be driving innovation – networked individuals will”. Did the audience concur? On the whole, yes, with 29% strongly agreeing and 48% tending to agree.

In contrast, journalist Guy Clapperton, humorously taking on the role of outsider, suggested that there are situations, particularly in the classroom, where technology has been taken too far and there is a place for getting students to turn away from their screens, take off their head phones and engage in more face-to-face communication instead. The audience, perhaps unsurprisingly, remained unconvinced. Only 9% agreed with the statement that “technology in the classroom has exceeded saturation point” while 65% disagreed.

We’re all participating online, responded Sarah Porter. Current and future economies are based on knowledge rather than products so we need to build more on the virtuous circle between education providers, commerce and consumers (learners) to make the most of what is possible. Universities need to lead, not follow: they should be innovation engines but not the inflexible, stand-alone engines of the 20th century. Increasingly, they are one cog among multiple providers of content and institutions today need to step up to the mark and think about what they are offering in the global context.

Asked about what is stopping universities being more creative about higher education, the audience damned the institutionally accredited learning model, with 28% blaming the focus on the traditional degree and 21% citing assessment and accreditation. The ‘skill sets of educators’ and ‘lack of leadership’ were also seen as barriers, at 23% and 16%.

Over to the audience, and the extent to which today’s students really are the digital generation they are assumed to be was brought under the spotlight. Ella Mitchell from the University of East London warned that we assume too much about the Google generation and are in danger of forgetting those who struggle with technology.

Professor Hardcastle agreed that with an increasingly diverse student population, that includes workplace learners who do not belong to the “Twitter or Second Life generation” it is important to have a diverse approach to pedagogy. Sarah Porter added that it is “not about a course run in the library in the first week of freshers but fully embedded into all of teaching and we’re a long way from that”.

Tom Franklin of Franklin Consulting roused the ire of a section of the audience with the claim that expecting students to be IT literate when they enter higher education should be taken as given and if they do not have those skills then they are not ready for university. A couple of audience members responded that such a requirement would discriminate against students from poorer backgrounds who do not have access to computers at home, while Lindsay Jordan, from the University of the Arts, London, asked where, if we take that route, the skills requirement would end. “Do we say that they should also be sophisticated group facilitators, too?” she asked. “There comes a point where we have to take on that responsibility and it needs a purpose – it should be embedded in the curriculum”.

Professor Dutton moved the topic on in an interesting way with the suggestion that teachers and academics should be trying to help students to create as well as consume on the internet. He noted that while almost all students have access to the internet, only about 10% produce original content for it, discounting uploading photos to Facebook. “Faculty also may not be using the internet as a medium to communicate with the world and do not tell their students that they can create a web page and put their own material out there. It should be about creating the ability to reach the world with your ideas,” he added.

But, the audience were asked, is a world in which people are immersed in the virtual environment of their choice, asynchronous interactions with others mediated via screen, mouse and keyboard a bold new paradigm of human communication or a dystopian world of professional and social disinteraction? Overwhelmingly, at 70% versus 13%, this optimistic audience opted for the former.

Working at a distance is not a new development – researchers used to communicate through letters and telegrams, Sarah Porter pointed out, while Professor Dutton said that most people who are online have more social interactions than those who are offline and we use the internet to be where we need to be to have face communication and experiences.

The consensus continued as discussions moved into other areas where JISC has been active in helping higher education use technology to meet the challenges of the future. Over two thirds of the audience believed that Open Access is the way forward for academic publishing, while the same number thought that JISC should provide a cloud service. 66% supported the idea that, given the pressure on university budgets, investment in ICT should be a priority.

Finally, and fortunately, exactly the same number declared that they had found the debate very or fairly informative.