This week's THE ('Campus nibs') reports that the University of Westminster has provided more than 2,000 undergraduates and 250 lecturers with iPads as part of a £1 million scheme to promote paperless learning.
Paperless learning. Learning without using paper.
I guess that means relying on e-books and not on print books, which will have huge implications for the library and for publishers, many of whom continue to provide programme core texts only in print form.
It will mean that students will need to take notes on their iPad, requiring certain literacies - sometimes as basic as touch typing, sometimes the more sophisticated skill of using an electronic stylus to write (hopefully legible) notes on their iPads - and find other ways of engaging with content. It is common practice for learners to underline significant words, sentences and paragraphs in texts, for example, and scribble comments in the margins.
Of course, the view of 'learning' that I'm presenting is somewhat traditional. There are many, many ways of encouraging and even requiring learners to engage with content, material, knowledge and information, that are contingent upon new technologies. The symbiotic link between learning and reading so long cherished by higher education has been reduced, now joined, to an extent, by learning through watching and listening, speaking, writing and creating. Reading - rightly - is unlikely ever to disappear, though, and here I ask questions about the fitness for purpose of tablets in general, and perhaps more pertinently, their software and apps, to allow learners to engage to the maximum with what they are reading.
At the same time, the trend is to move towards a far more paperless society than has been known for centuries. This must be one of the signs and indeed facilitators of a more flexible approach to learning and working. It goes hand in hand with mobile learning, allowing individuals to study while on the move, take their learning with them: easy to carry, easy to do in places and at times of their choice, and easy to access most of the accompanying resources. It's also easy to interact with peers and tutors, easy to store and organise materials and resources, and easy to search for new resources.
These iPads are being given to the University of Westminster's second-and third-year students at the university's Faculty of Science and Technology for use until graduation, 'allowing them to access video, audio and text documents on a single platform. Dedicated staff 'digital leaders' and 'student digital ambassadors' have been appointed to support the pilot project, which may be rolled out across the whole university if it is successful.' (THE, 8-14 October 2015, p15.)
I wonder whether paperless learning will lead to the notion of 'learning' being subtly redefined.
A recent report on the BBC website indicates that Exeter University and Pearson are planning to develop online postgraduate degrees. Although the title doesn't talk about specifically flexible delivery, the article makes it clear that the target market is the typical one for flexible learners: students who 'will be fitting their studies around full-time jobs, to access course material when and where it suits them'. There will be 'weekly interactive online teaching sessions delivered from university faculties'. It is also clear that one of the goals for this initiative is to extend the university's global reach as well as to widen access to higher education for vulnerable and disadvantaged people. Lastly, the press release seems to indicate that Exeter wants to engage with the development of high-quality vocational (rather than academic) qualifications, and of degree-apprenticeships.
This is an intriguing initiative on the part of an institution which has traditionally emphasised and prized being a 'destination' university which attracts many younger learners who are seeking a strong campus-based experience. Part of the intrigue lies in the fact that the fall in part-time student numbers is well known and the subject of much research. Another part lies in the partnership with Pearson. Of all the various models of flexible learning that are evidenced around the sector, Liverpool's partnership with Laureate is probably the most similar to Exeter's with Pearson. Laureate Education, Inc. is a global network of accredited campus-based and online post-secondary institutions offering undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 1,000,000 students around the world. Laureate students attending one of more than 80 institutions are part of an exciting, international, multicultural academic community that spans across more than 28 countries in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Laureate makes the University's programmes available online, provides the e-learning environment and personal student support, while the University of Liverpool is responsible for the academic quality of the programmes and it awards the degrees.
If Exeter plans to use a similar model with Pearson then there are important points to note. The development of the online courses is effectively outsourced, meaning that the university's academic staff may not be heavily involved in the pedagogic design of the programmes. Exeter is rightly keen to emphasise its uncompromising stance on the quality of these courses, but this can frequently lead to a reining in of genuine flexibility, since offering learners genuine choices about how, what, when and where they learn leads to a high level of individualisation which can concern those responsible for quality assurance. (The grounds for this concern are never entirely clear: maybe the drive for learner parity on the assumption that this means everyone has to do everything at the same time and in the same way?) And, as is so often repeated on this website, online learning and flexible learning are not synonymous.
One to keep an eye on as it develops.
Dr Alison Le Cornu is a freelance Consultant in Academic Practice working in higher education. She specialises in flexible learning which she understands as empowering learners by giving them the ability to choose how, what, where and when they study. This is very dependent on institutional systems and structures having the capacity to facilitate this. She works with institutions at all levels to help them bring about the institutional/student partnership that this requires.