An edited and abridged version of this paper appeared in the Multimedia section of the Times Higher Education Supplement, 12 April 1996.

Rushing to the technology

Education is entering a new era. The writing is on the wall. Or, at least, it is there in the technology pages of the quality newspapers, the Internet magazines and education journals, the computer shows and exhibitions, and the education conferences such as ETL and ALT-C, all of whom have been waxing lyrical about telematics-based learning for a year or more. Just as mountaineers climb mountains because they’re there so, in large part because the technology is there to enable it, we have seen a flurry over recent months on the part of universities to create online distance learning programmes of one form or another as proselytising zealots, abetted by their mesmerized deans, scramble to get their Web pages of course notes out to a waiting world. At the same time, the political and industrial climate is now, in the aftermath of the European DELTA programme, nurturing further exploratory forays into telematics-based open and distance learning. Responding to the Delors White Paper on Growth, Competitiveness, and Employment (December 1993) with its stress on “life long learning for a changing society”, for example, the Europe and the Global Information Society report (May 1994) from the Bangemann group seeks through Application Area Two to “promote distance learning centres providing courseware, training and tuition services tailored for SMEs, large companies and public administrations” as well as to “extend advanced distance learning techniques into schools and colleges.” The same message is echoed in the CCTA report Information Superhighways: Opportunities for public sector applications in the UK, May 1994, in the CEC communication Europe's Way to the Information Society, July 1994, in the CEC White Paper on Education and Training, November 1995, and in numerous other public documents before and since.

And so numerous ‘global colleges’, ‘virtual classrooms’, ‘electronic campuses’, and other such provocatively named ventures, have emerged over the last two or three years in the US and Europe, ranging from large-scale and often publicly-funded programmes embracing high-cost technologies such as interactive television (Berlitz European Projects’ MTS, University of Maine, University College Dublin’s ‘Virtual Classroom’, …) to targeted low budget Internet-based projects such as the trans-European ‘ICP OnLine’. I’ve probably counted more than one hundred institutions offering everything from single module or single discipline programmes to complete ‘virtual universities’ of one kind or another.

At the risk of seeming a killjoy, I must admit to having an uneasy feeling that in many cases we’re getting it wrong, not least because we’re too often beguiled by the glorious technologies to take the time to seriously think through the social and pedagogic implications. I want to suggest not that we don’t need our ‘virtual universities’ but that we need to think more clearly about what we’re doing if we’re going to get them right.