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'The Virtual University: Value and Feasibility'

Diana Laurillard

Open University


This is the European Year of Lifelong Learning. The Virtual University, if it is does anything at all, ought to make real the rhetoric of lifelong learning. So I am going to consider, as the underlying theme of my talk, the extent to which the virtual university does indeed serve the needs of the lifelong learner.

Universities are having to grapple with some highly complex changes to their systems - not just the medium through which academics teach, but changes also in the logistics of communication. The virtual university will encompass both. Let me give some examples of what the concept means in the OU context.

OHT: new tech for study

The idea of the virtual university is attracting a lot of attention because it seems to contain the seeds of a solution to some of the problems in HE. But the difficulty with attractive technological solutions is that they tend inevitably to define the problem as being the one they can solve.

Suppose we were to start the analysis from the other end: by articulating what students need if they are to achieve value from their university education? We could start by looking at how we teach, and how we might improve on teaching to serve better the needs of the learner. If we start there, perhaps we can define a problem of the form that new technology can still solve, but on our terms.

We can start with some of the standard teaching methods and consider how they impact on the learner. How do they compare in terms of the different kinds of learning activity they engage the student in: 'attending', 'practising', 'discussing', 'articulating'?

For lectures, and for reading print-based materials, both of which are essentially presentational formats, students are required to do little more than attending. They are truly active only when they are set exercises or practical tasks which let them practise the techniques they have been taught. That is the point at which they can make some connection between practice and theory. There is usually little opportunity for the individual student to have a dialogue with the teacher at that point. It does happen, of course, but in the different teaching context of the tutorial or small group, or rather large group, as is generally the case these days. The student will also practise the articulation of their subject, developing and generating their own ideas, or their own expression of the knowledge they are learning - but that really only occurs in the assignment tasks when they do essays and project work. And of course the feedback on their assignment task will be separate again. These are all important activities for learning to take place, and they are all covered in our traditional modes of teaching, but they are attenuated over time - the student has to sustain those connections across a range of learning sessions, and usually, of course, they are doing that over several subjects simultaneously.

We can map this distribution of student learning activities for the standard teaching modes experienced by a student in a 50-hour study week. These figures are taken from an engineering department in a campus-based university. Checking them against different departments and another university, of course there were several differences, it would be hard to identify a typical distribution, but the general pattern was always the same, that attending was by far the commonest activity.

Student study time distribution - OHT

Now of course you will be very familiar with all those claims of educators and psychologists of the importance of learning through doing - it began with Dewey, and it has resurfaced recently in the guise of 'situated cognition' - which means enabling the learner to maintain the linkage between the theory and practice, to be able to continually interpret the theory as action, and also to conduct the action in the light of the theory - that is how you make sense of an idea, and how you make it your own. That is not achieved through attending alone. With much less emphasis on 'practising', and still less on discussion and articulation, the traditional balance of student learning activity does not match the educational theory.

If we were to rethink that balance, redistribute student learning time in a different way, what would be a more effective balance, and how would that be achieved?

Recently I wrote a book called 'Rethinking University Teaching' which developed a framework for analysing teaching media, grounded in research on how students learn. I described it as a 'conversational framework' to highlight the iterative character of the learning process.

OHT: Conversational framework

It defined two levels on which academic learning operates, the theoretical discussion and the practical experience. Both are essential. And at both levels iteration must be able to occur: practice with feedback from the teacher's specially-constructed world (a practical perhaps, or a field study), and this is linked to theoretical dialogue with the teacher, which helps the student progress towards a faithful articulation of the theory. This is nothing new. Vygotsky emphasised the social aspect of knowledge. Piaget emphasised the constructive character of learning. Dewey emphasised the importance of integrating theory with practice. Pask emphasised the link between the descriptive and operational aspects of understanding. Academic learning requires all of these. We certainly cannot get away with a less complex framework.

Having developed the framework, I then used it to examine the various teaching methods and media available to higher education, to see which were capable of delivering this complex iterative process. None of them could do it all, but all of them could do something, and judicious combinations could do quite a lot. That was the basis for one of the key arguments in the book: that a mix of teaching and learning methods will always be the most efficient way to support student learning, because that is the only way you can embrace all the activities of discussion, interaction, adaptation and reflection.

The point of doing this was to provide lecturers with a way of deciding on which media to use. So as not to be entirely technologically-driven in our planning, we have to be clear about the rationale for choosing computer-based learning rather than traditional methods. This comparison of the media with respect to the different learning activities they support is useful for demonstrating that just as traditional methods are lacking, so are computer-based ones. We cannot expect to do all our teaching via the computer. That is an expectation that occasionally creeps into the debate, and must be questioned at every opportunity. However, what the analysis also showed, was that whereas the traditional methods can be better at the discursive learning activities, the computer-based methods are much better at the interactive aspects, where the student engages with the practice of their subject.

So here is a role for the computer. Incorporating the new media into the range of methods used could change the balance of learning activities, and redistribute student learning time in a way that would better match the rhetoric we all espouse.

Student study time distribution 2 - OHT

To the standard methods of university teaching we could add computer-marked assignments (to cover those aspects of assessment that can be handled adequately by a program), computer-assisted learning (to represent any form of teaching program), computer-mediated conferencing (as the asynchronous form of conferencing), and audio-graphics (to represent synchronous conferencing).

Computer-assisted learning, if it makes proper use of the technology, engages students in manipulation of data, experimentation, testing, analysis, etc - all the activities appropriate to situating the theory in practice. Attending to the presentation of information or ideas often forms a part of these programs, but the emphasis is on practice. Similarly, audio-graphics, as a communication technology allows the student to engage in discussion, but in the context of doing some interactive task, sharing their screen with their interlocutor, whether teacher or student.

Computer-mediated conferencing will form the heart of the virtual university, because it creates a tutorial form that is governed by neither time nor place. It is also one in which a substantially higher proportion of the total time is student input - the ratio can be as high as 10:1 student:tutor input - significantly different from the typical small-group tutorial. Students still spend time attending, but the form of attention is importantly different when there is the opportunity to take part at your leisure. In this asynchronous text-based medium the moment to react or to make your point, is never lost. It's always possible for the student to come back and say something. Students can take their time, and they do. That I think is why their proportional input is so much greater in cmc. So even though there is a lot of attending as well as discussing and articulating, it is likely that the quality of that attention is better than it is for the tutorial where the student typically knows that they will say very little. Students find on-line tutorials hard work, and many still fail to participate actively, but they appreciate their pedagogic value. There was a rumour at the OU recently that we were going to stop this kind of system for students whose courses did not require it, and there was a student outcry. The particular value they recognised was that the medium required them to practise stating their own ideas, in a benign environment, and that they could easily set up mutual self-help groups, not normally very easy for distance students. For campus-based students this may seem less relevant, but we have to remember that even full-time students are becoming effectively part-time, as they struggle to keep a job going to pay for their studies, and the facilities needed for distance students will be necessary for these students too.

Finally, instead of relying solely on tutor-marked problem-sheets, or essays, or projects, computer-based assessment can work quite well for some areas. This is not an area that has attracted a great deal of research and development in recent years, but it could have the greatest benefit from the student's point of view. It is possible to design tasks that are both challenging and genuinely testing, and have the further advantage of giving the student immediate feedback, rather than having to wait for the tutor's delayed mark.

From this comparison we can see that if we begin with the student's point of view, considering what would be the optimal distribution of their time, then we can achieve a more effective balance between active learning and mere attending by introducing some of the new methods and media. I shall illustrate the kind of activity I am referring to by using some examples from programs currently under development at the OU.

Slide 1: Homer index

The first example comes from the conversion of a course using print, audio and video to a multimedia version. Students use print-based study guides to work through analysis and interpretation of the Homeric poems, together with videos which guide them around the ancient Greek archaeological sites. The aim of the course is to equip the students with the means to discuss the relationship that can be established between the poems and the archaeological data, and what each can tell us about the society of the time. In the print version the student is led through a series of analyses of textual and visual evidence. In the multimedia version, on the other hand, they still need guidance, of course, but they can do more extensive searches, and be less constrained by instructions. The student has more control over what they find out.

Slide 2: Investigation

The guidance is there in the form of structured searches: there is always a question identified for them to investigate, so it is not just random browsing. Each question also supplies suggestions on what they should have read already, how much work is involved, and how they might set about the task. With the computer-based data the research they can do is much more extensive than is possible with print.

Slide 3: Site

Examining one of the archaeological sites, they can identify the relative locations of different kinds of building to build a picture of the physical structure of the city.

Slide 4: Text search

To investigate further the kind of society that existed, they are advised, for example, to examine the textual references to different kinds of person - king, general, soldier, etc. Using the 'Notebook', they can take notes on the form of language and descriptions used, and build up evidence to be printed out for use later as they write the essay. Moreover, since the program has suggested the nature of the investigation, it can also provide commentary in the form of a model answer to the question. The print version also does this, of course, but in the multimedia version the commentary can be delayed until the program has identified that the student has made some notes of their own - a device that appears to work remarkably well. Judging from the formative evaluation, students are aware that they are much more likely to take notes this way than when they can simply read further down the page to see what the model commentary has to say.

What makes the multimedia, computer-based version more beneficial for students is that it requires them to do something. The print version provides a route through a similar analysis of the data, but does it for them. The multimedia version, on the other hand, allows them to act more like a scholar, examining far more instances of occurrences in the text, and rquiring them to link these to their own notes, and withholding the model answer until they have formulated their own and established a basis for critiquing it on their own terms. This is what it takes to 'make it your own', and we must find ways of giving students the chance to do that.

Another example comes from a prototype for an art history program.

OHTs: Art explorer

This is the kind of benefit we should be getting from new technology. There are still too many examples of its use that fail to exploit this kind of interactive practice of a subject. Multimedia has given us some impressive presentational facilities, but that has remained the focus. The adaptive capability of the computer behind it has been forgotten. It is not enough to say that in this program the student can 'call up this' and 'click on that' - the proper question is 'what are they required to do'? It should be a 'user-active' medium. Instead, they are confronted with a kind of tyranny of choice - you can do this, you can do that, yes, but what ought I do if I want to understand it? The novice needs guidance. It is a derogation of responsibility for the teacher to offer nothing more than choices. it is our responsibility to know what it takes to learn, and to provide the environment that supports that.

Information technology has led to an alarming expectation that it may be possible to educate students by simply linking them up to the Web. Give them access to information. The notion is often accompanied by the rhetoric of being student-oriented, learner-centred, it even shades into consumer choice on occasion. The student as consumer in the free market of ideas. But information is to knowledge as bricks are to buildings. It is as absurd to try and solve the problems of education by giving people access to information as it would be to solve the housing problem by giving people access to bricks. Part of the point of an education is to give people the skills and understanding to enable them to handle information. Before having unlimited access to it you have to know what to do with it, how to select, how to evaluate and critique it, how to recognise what's missing, how to generate what you need. It's no that the Internet is irrelevant to our students, it's a useful source of information, but that's all. If you were to assess what our students need most to help them in their studies, a 'useful source of information' would come fairly far down the list.

So we must not begin with what the new technology offers. Examining instead what students need, we are led to a quite different analysis of how new technology can help. Most importantly, it should (a) give students more opportuntities to engage with the practice of their subject; and (b) give them more opportunities to discuss and articulate their ideas. As student numbers increase, creating a natural pressure on reducing these essential aspects of learning, it may be that new technology provides the only hope of giving students what they really need.

Well I hope I've demonstrated that it can do something interesting for students in precisely those aspects of the learning process where their current learning environment is most impoverished.

But of course the real challenge of new technology is funding it. It is seen by many as our salvation, for good reasons and bad, but the one point everyone always agrees on is that new technology costs a lot, even if you get it right. We already find it impossible to square the funding circle in HE - to provide for increases in student numbers, and maintain quality, with less resource. But as university academics, we have it within our power to come up with a solution because the most expensive resource in HE is our time, and we are responsible for managing it. Once we have finally rid ourselves of the fantasy that the state might provide more funds, and not wishing to sell ourselves to the whim of private finance, and not wishing to make students pay for all the education society needs them to have, perhaps we might find another way?

The changes in student study time distribution have a knock-on effect on the distribution of staff time. Staff time is by far the largest resource funded by HE. What we are looking at, in considering how to change student study time distribution, is inevitably a change in the way academic staff spend their time. It is a complex relationship, but essentially it means that staff spend far less time lecturing, more time in small group tutorials and on-line conferencing, and more time in the specialised task of creating interactive teaching materials. And there is only one way to make those numbers add up, and that is to share the interactive teaching materials. Let me explain.

Staff time distribution, standard - OHT

The student time distribution I showed earlier for the standard teaching methods requires a staff time distribution of something like this, again based on a campus university, for a lecturer who spends around 22 hours a week on teaching. If that lecturer were to switch to adding in the new technology methods as well, and were to do all the materials preparation for those same students, the picture would look far worse, because materials preparation takes so much longer

Staff time distribution, new methods - OHT

but that figure can change, if most of the materials are acquired from elsewhere. The same is true in the OU context.

OHT: OU staff time

It follows, therefore, that if we are to give students what they need, then staff must change the way they work, must change the distribution of their working activities. It is a dramatic difference, to spend the bulk of one's teaching time on materials preparation instead of lecturing. But that is only the conclusion I can come to, beginning as I did, with what students need.

Lecturers have not traditionally embraced the teaching materials of another organisation. It would be a new departure, and require a new culture of teaching. It would certainly bring about change in the university sector, but change driven by students' learning needs.

The sources of change in universities now are wholly external. The need to expand, the need to cut costs, the economic potential of new technology. Universities do need to change, but they should be changed from within. Would it not be preferable to make students' needs the driver for change? And the resource for that is ourselves: our time, and the way we spend that vast resource, is within our power to change. It could be collective academic will that changes the university, makes it more progressive, provides a vision of what university study could be. And creates that engine of progress through collaboration in the development and use of teaching materials.

In conclusion, we must keep turning the debate away from new technology as the focus. The focus should be students and their needs. If we follow that through, then we inevitably find that new technology and the 'virtual university' is part of the solution, but the most important part is the way we teach, the way we use our staff time resource. If we can change that, and it is in our power to do so, then we can achieve a progressive and viable change in our university system that makes the most of the new technology, without being driven by it.