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.
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.