by Liz Aspden, Academic Innovation
Earlier this year, DEMOS published ‘the edgeless university: why higher education must embrace technology’. The full report is available for download (and I’m trying desperately not to make some comment about cures for insomnia here…). Rather than offering a critique of the whole paper, this article tries to offer a brief overview and a look at how the recommendations may or may not translate to SHU. Although if you’re going to insist on a critique…in all honesty I found this a difficult report to get to grips with: in some parts it seems deliberately provocative, in others very bland and almost old fashioned in its content; there are also some apparent ommissions and contradictions (of which more later) which seem to have been glossed over. It’s one of those reports that has hints of a hidden agenda without actually coming out and saying anything obviously explicit.
Anyway, moving swiftly onwards…
What’s the context for this report?
“After a decade of high investment, money is no longer available to throw at the problem.” (the edgeless university, p15)
The report addresses the current health (or otherwise) of the UK’s universities, their importance to the wellbeing of the economy, and the ‘transformative issues’ they are facing in the context of a funding crisis. Issues covered here include:
widening participation: “not just a ‘point of admissions’ problem. The problem begins with differences in aspirations and earlier educational attainment. And decisions about how to provide continued adult skills and education can have unintended and sometimes counterproductive effects.” (p16)
demographic change: “A diversifying student population puts new demands on institutions…requiring what some have called a ‘learner need’ approach. Teachers and lecturers have to deal with a much greater range of information processing styles, cultural backgrounds and styles of learning.” (p19)
competition and alternative providers: “Around the world more than one in three students are studying in a private institution, a sector worth an estimated $400 billion worldwide.” (p20)
funding: “Rising demand, expectations and diversity are confronting a shortfall in funding. The next two years are likely to see state funding fall by at least 5 per cent and the higher education sector has been told it will have to make a £180 million savings by reducing universities’ administrative costs.” (p21)
In the face of what has been identified as a ‘perfect storm’ for Higher Education, the report sets out a two-fold challenge: for UK universities to maintain their international reputation for excellence; and for continuing efforts to ‘eradicate inequality of access’. Taking a look at technology firstly as a cause (“technologies are changing how people can learn and research. Higher education systems are now one source among many for ideas, knowledge and innovation.” p25) and then as a solution (“We show how technology can help universities to capitalise on people’s need for continued learning and new networks of research…learning from best existing practice…commitments to open data and research…forms of provision that offer new ways for students and researchers to affiliate themselves with institutions” p35) the report then turns to recommendations to help institutions, and the sector as a whole, manage the edgeless university.
Why edgeless, by the way?
The report borrows the term edgeless from Robert Lang’s 2003 publication “Edgeless Cities: exploring the elusive metropolis”. It explains this by reasoning that “Universities…are experiencing ‘sprawl’. The function they perform is no longer contained within the campus, nor within the physically defined space of a particular institution, nor, sometimes, even in higher education institutions at all…The university is becoming defined by its function – provider and facilitator of learning and research – not its form. Its influence, reach and value extend beyond its UK campus.” (p8).
So far so good. What about the recommendations?
The final section of the report is in many ways the most revealing – but also the most problematic in terms of contradictions and ommissions. For example, for all its focus on openess and informality, the report also talks about the institutional role in matching and managing technology with how students want to learn, find infomation and interact – seemingly glossing over the ways in which these may conflict with student owned/chosen technologies and methods that they use beyond the reach of the institution. In isolation, quibbles like these can seem subtle and unimportant, but when taken as a whole they suggest that the report is addressing a specific agenda.
Leaving that to one side, openness is at the heart of many of the recommendations offered. One of the suggestions is that there should be greater efforts sector-wide to offer content more openly, contributing to the development of a repository of content, and thereby helping to develop individual institution’s brands. It also suggests, however, that this may make more sense for “established institutions with robust brands such as Oxford or…MIT, than it might for other less established or high profile institutions.” (p53). I’ll confess to a bit of a double take when I read this. The implication is that the Oxfords and MITs of the world can offer their content freely but still have something – experience, reputation, affiliation – to offer to draw students to its formal provision. And by association that other institutions perhaps only have their content, and if they offer this freely, there is little left to attract students. Is this really the case? Might more open access to some course content benefit a university with a strong local/regional connection such as Hallam develop its sense of relevance with the local community first and, by connection, with the wider population? Is this something that we should be pursuing as an institution?
Open access is also touched on in terms of publishing models and the potential impact of this on current business models: for example, if the library is no longer the central point of access, what would this mean for ways of curating and categorising information? How might intellectual property rights be managed? The report points to Google’s work in this area as “a visible sign of the kind of new settlements required in an era when information becomes available anywhere.” (p62) How is open publishing online, and access to different sources of information beyond the institution, changing how we approach research and scholarship? And how is it changing our students’ approaches?
The report also pays attention to how technology can be effectively integrated into teaching, re-stating the well worn statement that technology can’t just be dumped into the classroom. Staff need the “space and the capacity to develop new ways of working for themselves” – and they also need the appropriate support and incentives that will encourage experimentation. How can universities leverage the resources – particularly in the current economic climate – to create the right conditions for innovation?
Along with space and capacity, the report also talks about the importance of staff skills, and of promoting easy to use best-practice guides. It cites a set of screencasts available at http://www.teachertrainingvideos.com as good examples of these. By doing so it offers (accidentally, I think…) a good illustration of the difficulties of using technology engagingly, in a way that will appeal to a broad range of people. For everyone who finds the videos interesting and instructional, there’ll almost certainly be someone who finds them difficult to connect with. Which begs the question: if open access to content is a desirable institutional objective, what would be appropriate formats for sharing? And more immediately, thinking about staff skills, what kinds of resources would you find engaging or helpful?
There are a lot more themes in the report that I haven’t had time to look at here; if there’s sufficient interest out there, I think this would make a good subject for ongoing conversations across the institution (unless of course this has put you off completely…). If anyone is interested in being involved, please drop me a line. In the meantime, any thoughts you have on the questions this has posed (or more questions of your own!) would be more than welcome.