On ‘The Edgeless University’

The Edgeless University – Demos

Available for download: via Demos Publications

This is an interesting paper which identifies a range of significant technological challenges for higher education. It is suggested that universities are on the brink of an electronic revolution like the music industry in 1999 but struggling to make sense of the opportunities or understand the strategic options:

The next stage of technological investment must be more strategic. The sector currently lacks a coherent narrative of how institutions will look in the future and the role of technology in the transition to a wider learning and research culture.

A reasonable enough proposition although this in the context of welcoming the far-sighted establishment of JANET seems a little bit harsh – it is difficult to get much more strategic than setting up a successful shared sector wide network like this.

Many of the specific points made in the report are quite pertinent (if not entirely novel):

    – openness in terms of publication of research and free access to IP remains a difficult agenda;

    – the importance of recognising the value of teaching in the context of potentially distorting RAE/REF demands is a challenge;

    – high quality e-learning, discrete or blended, is about much more than just providing new tools – it requires huge investment and support;

    – the value of face-to-face learning and teaching should not be discounted.

Fairly straightforward agenda there then.

However, some of the ideas in here are just plain wrong. In particular the idea that there is a deficit of flexible study pathways for credit-based learning and that somehow it is the role of government to take a specific policy lead in this area:

Government policy must help higher education institutions develop new ways of offering education seekers affiliation and accreditation. This might include shorter pick-and-mix courses and new forms of assessment.

Then there is the particularly misguided idea of seeking to reconcile “informal learning” with the formal system of higher education:

Informal learning is growing in popularity and significance, and attracting the attention of politicians, but there are problems in reconciling informal learning with formal frameworks, and managing the relationship between institutions of higher education and the kinds of learning that happen outside them. We have yet to find a model for collating learning from many different sources. Funding and the structure of learning in formal higher education tend to militate against this.

There is a good reason for this – if “informal learning” can be recognised then there are actually costs in doing so and, in order to have currency, it has to be within an educational framework of some kind. More often than not though, such learning will be just “informal” – it is difficult to argue that mainstream HE provision should be skewed to cope with such marginal activity. Indeed, there remains significant adult and continuing education provision parts of which are structured for this purpose.

The overall conclusion though is pretty difficult to argue with:

In building the e-infrastructure for higher education we should not just build around the needs of institutions as they exist already. To pursue the possibilities of the ‘Edgeless University’, technology will have to be taken more seriously as a strategic asset. Technology is a driver for change. But we should harness it as a solution, a tool, for the way we want universities to support learning and research in the future.

So, the future is ‘edgeless’ it seems.