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Expert comment: Technology and access to higher education – a self-service future?

Keyboard Image for 'Log into My Hope' Monday 27 June 2016

Dr Joseph Maslen and Dr Frank Su, Lecturer and Senior Lecturer in Education Studies, discuss the prospects for universities in an era of open online learning.

Since the Browne Report [1] recommended an increase in student self-financing six years ago, the shadow of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has been hanging over UK higher education as a rival to the expensive, bricks-and-mortar concept of the university as a real-life community. As reported by BBC News Education Correspondent Sean Coughlan [2], this summer for the first time a MOOC is being integrated into credits for a ‘real’ degree. The University of Leeds is using ‘Futurelearn’, developed by the Open University in 2013, to assess performance in its ‘Environmental Challenges’ geography module. The Open University’s Vice Chancellor Peter Horrocks (also Futurelearn’s Chairman) is reported as hailing this as the first of many moves in ‘cost effective and time effective’ remote learning. Moreover, in Coughlan’s report Horrocks points to the growing political will behind such innovations, with the Government’s new 2016 White Paper [3] advocating flexible ways of delivering degrees under the ambit of ‘student choice’. With so much knowledge apparently available online, students could be forgiven for observing, as many do in essays and class discussions, that computers could take over from higher education tutors, with YouTube videos on demand instead of traditional seminars. In this commentary we question that view.

Initially, we should say that self-service is a positive and essential part of higher education. The self-directed enquirer who ventures into knowledge independently is an excellent student. This is nothing new. It retraces the nineteenth century idea of what the historian Patrick Joyce called the ‘liberal archive’, when library catalogues such as the Dewey System enabled students and the public to explore knowledge without the librarian’s direction [4]. Students should help themselves, and not wait for somebody to provide knowledge for them. Yet, even so, we wish to affirm the elevating value of real interactions with tutor and peers not as mere cost- and time-ineffective knowledge-givers, but as something else.

This argument is that an academic is at their best not as a knowledge store, or a knowledge store-keeper. Our job is not to mirror the role of an internet browser. Rather, the value of face-to-face tutoring and peer interactions is in coaching students to better convert inputs (whatever students may read or hear) to outputs (things that they are able to say or write). For the student who sees education as collecting and retaining knowledge from a computer, higher education is a trick, a myth, a waste of money. It is only in the complex, hands-on process of upgrading their thinking process – how students are able to produce knowledge themselves – that the degree represents a profound and lasting advancement in their life.

Ultimately, the greatest possibilities lie with a balanced, blended approach. The arrival of virtual learning technologies does provide an opportunity to widen access, but we should beware a two-tier model of experience and recognition. A remote model may compare poorly, both in reality and in the public imagination, against a ‘real’ model that thrives among the wealthier, full-time, traditional students. Standing against this social divide, we believe in being open to how remote learning may work for social mobility, but also in blending it with participation in a tutor-led group. The physical energy of live, facilitated discussion is invaluable. Computer-aided independent study is most truly educative for students when linked to the act of being in a room, committed and deeply engaged with others, articulating knowledge together. It is this blended learning that promises the most for the White Paper’s goals of diverse, life-changing higher education.

[1] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2010) Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education: An Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance. London: Stationery Office.

[2] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2016) Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice. London: Stationery Office.

[3] Coughlan, S. (2016) ‘Online Degree Units to Cut Tuition Fees’, BBC News Education and Family [online], 26 May. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-36378572 [accessed 27 May 2016].

[4] Joyce, P. (1999) ‘The Politics of the Liberal Archive’, History of the Human Sciences, 12, 2: 35–49 (41).

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