Opinion

Universities must adopt Web 2.0

Web 2.0 university systems are helping to change the way education is delivered, writes Steven Hipwell is an IT Officer at Birmingham City University. Universities are building technology-enhanced learning platforms (TELs) to deliver "always-on" media-rich education anywhere. Just as social networking sites like facebook, myspace and bebo have influenced the way many of us communicate, will future students seek a more virtual education?

The answer is more likely yes than no. Technology will become more ubiquitous and seamlessly woven into our daily lives. It will also be cheaper, better and easier to use. Students will use technology for everything.

At this point in writing I have to suppress my inner "futurist uber-geek". Reminding him that most humans are very social animals and require interaction. So even if you believe in Ray Kurzweil's "the singularity", simply explained: that artificial intelligence (AI) will outstrip biological human intelligence in the near future it is plausible that any such humanoids would still feel a desire to gather and associate.

If I am proven right then physical university spaces may become even more important to communities than they already are. In the meantime, the kind of web 2.0 technologies that universities are using to enhance teaching and learning, can be broadly categorised as follows:

Virtual Learning Environments (VLE's): a virtual learning platform.

Managed Learning Environment (MLE's): a VLE that includes all required business process functions i.e. student records, finance, HR etc.

Technology Enhanced Learning platform (TEL): A more web 2.0 evolved VLE/MLE.

The above descriptions are a gross simplification of what these technology platforms comprise, but serve as an outline of their functionality. TEL offerings feature virtual classrooms like www.wimba.com and open-source e-portfolios, such as www.mahara.org. Such products are incredibly powerful tools for organising, networking and communicating. But they only represent the first steps in a process of rapid development.

I wonder how long it will be before technology like Cisco's TelePresence will be mainstream domestic fare. Given that Moore's Law is rapidly being overtaken by accelerating technological and scientific advancement, perhaps, not so long. Or when fully immersive virtual reality rooms, like Iowa State University's, become no big deal. Harvard, Yale and MIT are collaborating on the Sakai Project. Liverpool Hope University has built an innovative virtual campus in Second Life. For where we might be heading with all of this technology a look at Oxford University's e-horizons institute is recommended.

It would seem the next logical step will be further consolidation and networking of university's business process platforms. Maybe, eventually one technology platform in the "cloud" that serves all universities. A bit like the joint academic network of the future.

Whatever the future holds it is likely to include a big helping of technology and higher education will, hopefully, be enhanced by it. Students will probably tailor their own versions of blended learning. Using university e-resources in conjunction with some monster mash-ups of Google scholar and who knows what else.

If you too believe Kurzweil and "the law of accelerating returns" then the next paradigm-shift in the time-scale of our human-machine evolution is merely a blink away.

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This was first published in December 2008

 

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