Pure fantasy

A report by Universities UK, Active Ageing and Universities: Engaging Older Learners, suggests that a new target for higher education should be the ‘retired’ as they may represent ‘crucial future activity for universities’. Yet another avenue of widening participation under Mandelson’s mandate for the expansion of new routes into higher education.  Last week at the Lord Dearing Memorial Conference, the man with the plan said: Part-time degrees, shorter and more intensive courses all offer the potential to lower student support costs, use resources more intensively and improve productivity.

This is pure fantasy. The word technology was avoided in this keynote although I suspect it lay behind the reference to alternative modes of study especially since current policy borrows heavily from the DEMOS Edgeless University report on the reasons why HE must embrace technology. If this is the case, then to say that changes in course delivery will cut costs is the wrong message.

Technology alone is not enough; as anyone who has worked in this field over the past decade can testify. Confidence and competence with computers can never be assumed for either staff or students. Resistance is alive and well and not without good cause because what the techno-addicts fail to recognise is that for many people virtual delivery involves change in practice and that requires more support – not less. It’s not a question of an ICT Helpdesk, valuable as that is, but , for staff in particular, pedagogical support for the transfer of teaching and learning from on-campus to the personal computer,  to the small screen netbook, or even smaller mobile phone; the moving from face-to-face interaction to media delivery.  As well as ensuring learning development support for traditional academic practice, there is the need to ensure digital literacy for both staff and students. Understanding authenticity and citation with search engines. Accessing electronic journal databases. Utilising the academic value of tools such as refworks and turnitin, blogs and wikis and constructing electronic portfolios. All this under the umbrella of virtual pedagogy; the change in the relationship between student and teacher as the lecturer becomes the facilitator of the vast breadth of knowledge sources on the Web and no longer the sole gatekeeper of subject expertise.

Then there are the issues around course design and validation, the requirement for inclusive practice and provision of alternative formats. Let me know what I’ve missed. How can we quality assure such a major change in direction? If all this can be done using existing resources as well as cutting costs, then those who care about the future of higher education should be very scared indeed.