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Virtuality, Higher Education and Workplace Learning

Margaret Gibbons and John Hillard

1 Introduction

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.

2 The context

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 between

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', aiming to

· 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 University.

3 The VSP and Workplace Learning

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) put it:

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).

4 Concluding remarks

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.


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