The University of Leeds is taking very seriously
the prospect of virtual learning and teaching. It has established
a Virtual Science Park (VSP) as an emergent medium for the delivery
of knowledge beyond the millennium. The implications for the
future shape of the Higher Education sector provide the underlying
theme of what follows. Some indications of possible trends have
been revealed in the implementation of the DfEE/Leeds TEC funded
Work-Based Learning pilot (WBL) in the University of Leeds. Here
the VSP has been utilised as a mode of both tutor-learner interaction
and as an electronic resource available to WBL students. This
paper reports on the use of computer-mediated-communication (CMC)
as a teaching and learning device in a large manufacturing company
and a large provincial theatre. The paper focuses specifically
on the potential of CMC for addressing the needs of workplace
learners but, for reasons of space, we cannot address the full
potential of virtuality. Section 2 sets the scene by reviewing
briefly the current context within which the HE sector operates
and explores the corporate strategy of the University of Leeds
in response to the threats and opportunities posed by CMC. Section
3 reports on the pilot experiment in the use of CMC in Workplace
Learning. Finally, some conclusions are drawn in Section 4.
The Higher Education (HE) sector appears to be in a considerable state of flux. Appearances can be deceptive and, compared to other public sector institutions, the organisational structure of the traditional university has remained remarkably stable since the 1960s. This may be a general characteristic of large, research-oriented organisations (Pavitt, 1990) but the system of university governance has preserved forms of activity that were laid down pre-Robbins, if not earlier. This creates barriers to innovation which certainly no longer exist in the private sector. In essence, the HE sector, like all remaining publicly owned enterprises, is confronted with business choices never contemplated in the so-called golden age of state-provided education.
A major objective of the Thatcherite 'revolution from above' was to promote the permeation of market imperatives into parts of society previous administrations of the twentieth century had failed to reach. The HE sector is not yet privately owned and controlled but it has not completely escaped the process of marketisation. A degree of competition has been introduced through the abolition of the binary divide between 'old' and 'new' universities and the promotion of the Further Education (FE) sector as an alternative 16-21 route. Secondly, changed funding arrangements have forced the HE sector to accommodate increased student numbers without a compensatory increase in per capita funding. Even though this has been ameliorated recently through the capping of student numbers, the declining unit of resource for undergraduate students will maintain the pressure for efficiency gains. Moreover, there is now competition to attract the better students or students with desirable characteristics, such as ability to pay or in the form of self-managed learners.
But such factors merely constitute short-term threats
to the integrity of HE. Although there is a great deal of hype
about the impact of new technology, the revolutionary convergence
of various strands of communications technology has opened up
the potential for radical innovation in the delivery of teaching
and learning materials. George Richardson (1997) makes the distinction
continuous product and process innovation as routine innovation, thus distinguishing it from radical innovation, where major breakthroughs so change the industrial landscape as to permit routine product and process development to set off in new directions. In most industries, firms now expect routine innovation and will not expect to stay in business unless they can successfully undertake it. Innovation of this kind is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for earning normal profits. Firms are of course aware of the possibility of radical innovations, which close avenues of development with which they are familiar, while opening up totally new ones down which their own capabilities may or may not permit them to proceed.
General applications electronics is now being applied to the knowledge industry in much the same way as physical production was mechanised in the previous phase of capitalist development. Taken to its extreme, computer mediated communication is poised to 'de-industrialise' the education industry along the same lines as the rationalisation of British industry in the 1980s and services in the 1990s (Coates and Hillard, 1995).
Naturally, much depends on the corporate response to the threats and opportunities posed by the 'globalisation' of HE. In addressing the likely impact of CMC on the future shape of HE, Leigh (1996) has identified that learning materials will increasingly come in electronic form and there will be an expanding use of learning software in the home and educational institutions. In consequence there will be a shift to student-centred learning, with individuals putting together their own portfolios from different suppliers; public and private. Homes and places of work will thus become outstations of colleges and universities and a primary function of FE and HE institutions will be as partial virtual organisations for post-16 education.
Leigh envisages that educational institutions will provide a range of information services to employers and local communities. The result will be the creation of a hybrid creative-technical-commercial skill base developed through innovative courses and the emergence of centres of excellence. Most significantly the role of the academic will be transformed into being a manager or facilitator of student learning.
In this context, the corporate strategy of the University
of Leeds is the promotion of 'learning in an atmosphere of research',
· expand the volume of applied research
· build strategic alliances with private and public institutions
· widen audiences for educational services and
· expand international networks
The Virtual Science Park is being designed to address
these requirements in a way that cannot be provided by property
based science parks . It has established:
· a structured information model that creates a Directory of the resources available in the VSP
· a navigation system that allows searching and browsing through the directory
· a link to the Internet
· an integrated set of communication tools including email, shared applications and desktop video conferencing
· editing, accounting and security functions and
· an interface that creates the VSP metaphor
of buildings, rooms and desks.
Taken as a whole, the VSP constitutes a process,
or, in Richardson's terms, a radical innovation. But major elements
of its operation only presently relate to product innovation.
This is especially true of video-conferencing, which is perceived
merely as an extension of traditional pedagogic forms. If video-conferencing,
for example, is viewed simply as another means of carrying on
the same methods of teaching and learning, then it is bound to
remain a routine innovation. Part of the problem lies in the
academic perception of the various media for communication. It
is a bridge too far for most academics to contemplate virtuality
as a means of changing the process of higher education. Taken
to its logical extreme, there is no room in the virtual world
for real academics. But this is delving into the genre of science
fantasy and, in the near future, it is unlikely that institutions
like the University of Leeds will go totally virtual! Nonetheless,
at this stage, there is still an opportunity to assess the probable
consequences of radical innovation in the HE sector, which, in
itself, will induce changes in the architectural shape of the
Virtual learning is currently being piloted by students
in Elida Fabergé, the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Vera
Productions (an SME in the communications industry). Early indications
are that the use of computer-mediated-communication in the development
of Workplace Learning displays immense potential. At a very practical
level, the PictureTel system is very simple to operate and represents
a genuine breakthrough in educational technology. Existing forms
of distance learning, such as those employed by the Open University,
still rely almost exclusively on text-based modes of learning
whereas PictureTel offers a truly multi-media approach. The University
is very much at the leading edge in the development of CMC and
thus is in a strong position to obtain 'first-mover' advantages
if it chooses to promote video-conferencing as an element of its
teaching and learning strategy. And, of course, Workplace Learning
is the environment in which the possibilities for the virtual
university are most promising. Here are just a few instances
of what the VSP is able to provide for learners:
Directory of educational services, expertise, materials
Students are able to use the system to locate information
that is relevant for their programme of study and have access
to general and specialist tutors.
On-line access to information
The University library is accessible through the
system, enabling students able to locate and reserve texts. Research
has shown that students, in the early stages of the learning process,
need to be familiar with library systems. This means that they
need to 'learn' to use the Virtual Library as they do in the library
itself. However, the ability to access knowledge sources electronically
through the VSP saves valuable time and resources.
Interactive tutorials/supervision between workplace and university
The VSP offers the University of Leeds a global reach
and must be viewed as the way forward if the university wishes
to become an international centre of excellence in teaching, learning
and research. The most effective use of computer mediated systems
in teaching and learning will be with groups of students rather
than one-to-one tutorials. The ability of tutors to 'hold' the
attention of students will be a significant factor in the success
or failure of the Virtual University, as the technology becomes
more firmly embedded.
The monitoring of participating students has shown
that it is preferable in the induction phase that face-to-face
contact occurs as a means of establishing teleprescence. This
is vital to generate the trust, confidence and security that promote
effective learning. Then the VSP can be effectively utilised
as an efficient teaching and learning medium. It is also important
that the format of the interactive sessions has an agreed pre-set
agenda. This saves time, allows all parties to be prepared for
the session and makes everyone aware not only of the sequence,
but also of the time limits of the exchange
Self-help student groups
This is the exciting area of the unfolding virtual
world. In the medium term, self-managed learning sets will probably
induce the most productive use of CMC. Potentially, Tutors will
be able to monitor student groups in different locations, and
be available to deal with problems/queries through the VSP.
At the operational level, it was necessary to construct a framework for dealing with problems of implementation. For the tutors, the exercise was a valuable part of their learning process, offering research opportunities in the area of teaching and learning and enabling them to view the students more holistically (Cunningham, 1994). This permitted the identification not only of the students' difficulties, but also opened up new avenues of academic possibilities for their programmes of study.
The students at Elida Fabergé, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Vera Productions have been encouraged to liaise with each other, and to share experiences both informally, and formally as part of structured Learning Sets. The model of the 'self-managed learner' (Cabinet Office, 1995) provided the underlying principles for the introduction of Learning Sets. This approach assumes that there is no change in organisations without learning. It seeks the integration of individual and organisational learning needs. It accepts that learners need to be responsible for their own learning but that collaboration between learners is essential if the Learning Organisation is to be achieved in practice.
Evidently, some further development will be necessary for these Sets to operate effectively, and the feasibility of introducing a 'Set Adviser' or 'Facilitator' as an alternative to the 'Tutor' is being currently explored. In all, the use of Learning Sets has proved a fruitful means of pooling student resources and seems to provide a workable but cost-effective system for the development of Workplace Learning. The benefits for the students is evident in the time saved in meeting tutors as well as providing them with an indication that the University is endeavouring seriously to meet their learning needs. This is an area, however, that more consideration before the system goes live. It cannot be assumed that either tutors of students will be at ease with the system, at least initially. Success in interactive encounters can only be achieved by ensuring that there is adequate preparation and training at all levels. Training in the use of new technology is essential, but for optimum use of the system, training will have to be in place for all participants, but particularly tutors, in the use of different forms of communication.
More generally, the key to productive co-operation
between Higher Education Institutions and the wider community
is a mutual trust and respect for the cultural differences which
exist between partner organisations. One of the slogans for Leeds
WBL was different but comparable and the evolution of strategic
alliances between different organisations has to be seen as a
complementary good rather than a vain search for a substitute
product. Such partnerships can only be sustained if there is
a mutually beneficial strategic objective but then there
still remains the more difficult task of operationalising the
system in practice. For example, the lack of a clear method of
ascertaining the weight to experiential learning is particularly
acute for workplace learners. The University has no consistent
admissions procedure for taking into account prior accredited
learning. But, given the nature of workplace learning, students
here possess knowledge largely in the form of practical experience
obtained through learning-by-doing (Adler and Clark, 1991;
Loasby, 1997). The 'knowledge' of the workplace
learners is very high-level, if often tacit, and the University
has yet to discover a satisfactory means of accrediting and assessing
the value of such 'non-academic' learning. Such learning is arguably
just as valid as learning-by-thinking and the striking characteristic
of the Elida Fabergé students is their possession of the
very 'enterprise' skills which the University is trying to 'teach'
its 18-21 cohort. As the Association of Graduate Recruiters (1995)
In order to survive in the rapidly changing world, graduates must be equipped with the skills of self-reliance. These emerging skills will be essential to enable them to negotiate their relationship with work and to manage their lifelong learning. Until Government and higher education decisively address this need by rewarding the learning processes which are necessary, the changes required for the UK's competitive survival will not be realised.
Furthermore, as Hazel Elderkin (1995: 1-2), has noted:
Building trust and understanding [is] essential to successful partnership. Staff with 'huge responsibilities' at work need time and support to adjust from the pace of business life to the more reflective learning style of the university ... Rapid developments in electronic communication [are] revolutionising work-based opportunities - degrees by the Internet are on the horizon [which will] enable learning organisations to choose their 'suppliers' worldwide.
The threats and opportunities posed by the imminence
of 'just-in-time' education provide the context within which the
future development of Workplace Learning has to be located. The
University's task is to convince companies like Elida Fabergé
that the latter's learning needs can be addressed in a partnership
between two Learning Organisations that share the mission of striving
for international excellence. (See Burgoyne, Pedler and Boydell
(1994) for a good survey of the theoretical and practical issues
raised by the Learning Organisation.) The implications of transforming
existing organisational structures to effect the development of
the Learning Organisation has been identified by McGill and Slocum
(1994: 13) as follows:
In an organisation with a learning culture everyone feels that there are opportunities to learn and grow. Clearly, to instil a learning culture most organisations must set aside prior values and management practices - even those that may be successful. Today's organisation must be 'unlearned' for the learning organisation to emerge.
And, of course, Britain's competitors are taking
very seriously the implications of the emergent Learning Society
(see Ashton and Green, 1996).
The Internet and World Wide Web allows delivery of
educational material to any number of students in any part of
the world. Students can use ISDN or the Internet to collaborate
with each other or meet with tutors. Education delivery could
become a global exercise, unbounded by time and space constraints
(Leigh, 1996). Virtual Workplace Learning offers the exciting
prospect of fusing thinking and doing or, put differently, breaking
down the barrier between theory and practice. As things stand,
the University is still preoccupied with the theory of Workplace
Learning and needs to spend more effort in addressing the issue
of its practical application. This said, Workplace Learning at
the University of Leeds is an innovative concept, and, as such,
it was inevitable that the WBL pilot would suffer teething problems
and unforeseen difficulties. In taking forward the development
of Workplace Learning, the use of Learning Sets in a virtual environment
offers the potential of a workable framework to provide clearly
defined systems designed to encourage workplace learners to become
self-managed learners. Workplace learners at the University of
Leeds have become aware not only of the tangible benefit of a
quality academic qualification, but also, in terms of value-added,
can look forward to the longer term rewards to be derived from
becoming lifelong learners.
Adler, P.S. and K.B. Clark (1991), 'Behind the Learning Curve: A Sketch of the Learning Process,' Management Science, 37, 267-81.
Ashton, D. N. and F. Green (1996), Education, Training and the Global Economy, Edward Elgar.
Association of Graduate Recruiters (1995), Skills For Graduates in the 21st Century, AGR.
Burgoyne, J.G., Pedler M. and T. Boydell (1994) (eds), Towards the Learning Company: Concepts and Practices, McGraw-Hill.
Cabinet Office (1995), Getting the Most out of Self Managed Learning, Office of Public Service and Science, HMSO.
Coates, D. and J.V. Hillard (1995) (eds), UK Decline: the Key Texts, Harvester.
Cunningham, I. (1994), The Wisdom of Strategic Learning, McGraw-Hill.
Elderkin, H. (1995), 'What is Work-Based Learning?', WBL Network News, 2, HEC.
Leigh, C.M. (1996), 'In the Workplace and Elsewhere', Paper delivered to The Virtual University? Conference, Senate House, University of London, May.
Loasby. B.J. (1997), 'The Division and Co-ordination of Knowledge', in S.C. Dow and J.V. Hillard (eds), Beyond Keynes, Edward Elgar.
McGill, M.E., and J.W. Slocum (1994), The Smarter Organization, John Wiley.
Pavitt, K. (1990), 'Key Characteristics of the Large Innovating Firm', mimeo, Science Policy Research Unit, Sussex University.
Richardson, G.B. (1997), 'Innovation, Equilibrium
and Welfare', in S.C. Dow and J.V. Hillard (eds), Beyond Keynes,
Lazonick, William. Competitive Advantage on the Shop Floor. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Vernon, Raymond, "International Investment and International Trade in the Product Cycle." Quarterly Journal of Economics 80, no. 2 (May 1966): 190-207.
Nilsson, Eric Innovating-By-Doing: Skill Innovation as a Source of Technological Advance, Journal of Economic Issues, 33-47