Is higher education controlled by Luddites?

The other day I found myself witnessing a scene that seemed archaic in the extreme. A man was delivering Yellow Pages directories to local homes. Physically dragging a trolley along the street and then dropping off the directories on the householder’s doorstep. It was like a scene from the reign of Queen Victoria instead of 21st Century Britain.

Back to the future for British higher education Photo: Nationaal Archief, Den Haag via Flickr

In the Internet age it seems ridiculous to distribute information in such a crude, wasteful and inefficient manner. I wonder how many of those directories go straight into the bin? Anyone can visit the Yellow Pages online and search for what they need across the whole of the UK. It takes a matter of seconds to find what you seek.

The same approach should apply to the way we learn at university. Technology should be applied across the board to cut costs and improve the learning experience. Doesn’t it seem incredible that we are required to buy printed books, lug them across the campus and then spend hours searching for the piece of information we need hidden somewhere in several hundred pages?

The e-Book solution would mean that we could carry an entire library of books on a single data stick. Read them using a handy netbook, computer or smartphone. Search through the content in seconds to find what we seek. Plus, we’d save an enormous number of trees and, hopefully, see a reduction in the prices we pay for these set books.

We shouldn’t stop there. The whole idea of technology is to make life easier and cheaper. I’d like to see technology used across the entire campus. Not just video streamed lectures, as I’ve previously blogged about, and e-Books but even the exam process could be updated.

One British university is already experimenting with new anti-cheating technology to enable students to take exams at home rather than at university or college. With the news that our new government is desperate to squeeze the further education sector sooner rather than later doesn’t a technological based, flexible and cost effective approach sound like a good idea? Especially if it can also ensure that standards don’t drop and fee rises are kept to an acceptable minimum.

I recently finished my exams. It was the first time in over 20 years that I had to write out exam answers by hand. This was so disconcerting a prospect that I even felt the need to practise my handwriting. Why was this necessary?

During the past 20 years I have taken many professional exams. Not one of them required me to write the answers by hand. The same applies to reports, business letters, emails, procedures etc. They were all typed out and printed. So why did I find myself sat at a desk, not too dissimilar to those of my school days, writing out answers to exam questions by hand? Was it meant to be a test of my understanding of the subjects studied or a test of my ability to handle a pen?

The more I think about it the more I feel that the learning systems in place at the University of Lincoln, and probably most other universities in the UK, need to be torn apart and rebuilt. Rebuilt with technology at the heart of the process. The benefits of greater flexibility, cost reduction and reduced waste are too great to ignore.

3 Responses to Is higher education controlled by Luddites?

  1. Jane Crofts says:

    I think you make some excellent points that are really worth serious thought, but like all change we must remember one size does not fit all. I agree hand written exams are a real anacronym, but you can’t submit a creative portfolio online.

    I would hate the day when there were no real books in a library, there really is no substitute for a well thumbed favourite where you find what you are looking for because it just falls open at the right place. And we must also be mindful of those parts of society where the internet is still a mystery and although not our world we have a responsibilty to them.

    Good luck with the revolution, I am with you some of the way.

  2. Alex Bilbie says:

    The University’s IT department have got a busy summer ahead; we’ve already started making improvements to the wireless network to improve speed and availability, a lot of sites are being upgraded to the new Common Web Design (see which will improve readability and usefulness. There will be new timetabling and calendering systems come September and we’re about to start the process of a brand new Library portal which will promote e-books and allow you to access material on a wide variety of devices.

    To see what we’re up to check out:

    Developer, Online Services

  3. Mike Hodges says:

    Alex Bilbie – nice to hear upgrades and changes are coming but I think this needs a change of ethos at the very top of the university administration. An example is Blackboard – which I think is quite a good system – but isn’t used to its fullest potential. I was meant to submit some work for assessment last semester, via Blackboard, but this was halted because tutors allegedly couldn’t figure out how to access the assignments. Not a fault with the technology but with the training? Or, perhaps, the attitude of the tutors?

    Jane Crofts – You make a good point about submitting portfolios of work for assessment. I’d also think that it would be difficult in the extreme for the Fine Art students to submit their work for assessment electronically (their final assessment being a full blown art show). But they are the exception to the rule. As for real books? I love them myself but recognise that their days are numbered. The electronic book is the future, quick to search, easy to store and available on multiple platforms. Anything that makes access to literature (I’m thinking of the Gutenberg Electronic Book project – 25,000 books free to download) must be a good thing.

    Your final point is a very good one. People who have no Internet access are at a disadvantage. The same way that people who don’t have a phone are at a disadvantage. Do we have a duty to help them? Only if they want to be helped. Technology shapes our society. If people choose not to use that technology they will have to accept that they will play a lesser part in the future development of our society. Of course, that’s just my opinion and as a confirmed Tech-Head of more than 20 years experience I cannot claim to be unbiased.

    Thank you both for reading my Blog. Your comments are most welcome.