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The Dearing Report: A summary with respect to learning technology, and some first thoughts

Gabriel Jacobs, University of Wales

It would be hard to imagine a better justification of what ALT stands for and has worked for since its formation than the weighty report produced by Sir Ron Dearing's National Committee of Enquiry into Higher Education. I do not believe it is going too far to say that the Report in effect endorses ALT's existence, indirectly giving it recognition at the highest national level.

ALT's submission to the Committee has clearly been taken very seriously. It is quoted only once (Chapter 14, Point 14), but the Report is peppered with many of the arguments we (and, admittedly, some others) put forward. Indeed, there is hardly a chapter which does not contain a mention of what Dearing has chosen to call C&IT (Communications and Information Technology), an acronym which perhaps does not look very pretty on the page, but which does not trip all that badly off the tongue.

From the start of the Report, near the beginning of the Introduction, educational technology is identified as being crucial to the future of higher education:

"New technology is changing the way information is stored and transmitted. This has implications both for the skills which higher education needs to develop in students, and for the way in which it is delivered."

C&IT, says Dearing, will radically alter the shape and delivery of learning. This theme is developed and insisted upon throughout the Report, but the topic is addressed specifically in a whole chapter (Chapter 13) devoted to it. Here, Dearing asserts unambiguously that C&IT is set to improve the quality, flexibility and effectiveness of higher education in teaching, learning and research. Its exploitation will play a pivotal role in the success and health of higher education in the future, and in maintaining quality in an era when there will be certainly be continuing pressure on levels of funding and an increasing demand for places in higher-education institutions. The Committee believes that "for the majority of students, over the next ten years the delivery of some course materials and much of the organisation and communication of course arrangements will be conducted by computer", and that C&IT "will overcome barriers to higher education, providing improved access and increased effectiveness".

The Committee also puts forward in this chapter its vision of the future in which a world market in learning materials based on educational technology will develop, and contends that higher-education institutions must be ready to take advantage of this potential bonanza. To this end, while there is an open-eyed recognition that the enormous potential of C&IT in teaching and learning will be realized only if there is an immediate investment in time, adequate resources and staff development, success will depend on the management of change. Thus, says the Committee, "the development and implementation of an integrated C&IT strategy will be one of the main challenges facing managers of higher-education institutions".

This has always been ALT's standpoint, and it now has the blessing of the most important policy document on higher education to appear since the Robbins report of 1963.

However, the Committee has been fully aware that the change envisaged, and which it recommends in the strongest possible terms, will not come about by itself. It requires not only financial and other resources but a root-and-branch rethink of institutional culture and priorities, where the leadership of higher education will be a critical factor. In the words of the Report, "the full exploitation of C&IT by higher-education institutions in the pursuit of their missions will require senior management to take an imaginative leap".

This will of course be easier said than done, and Dearing does not underestimate the size of the task, but at least such a view is now 'official'. From now on, ALT can campaign on the back of Dearing, and, in theory at least, we should be listened to with greater attention.

Of course, the question of funding raises its head. The Dearing Committee estimates that the UK higher-education sector currently spends between £800 million and £1 billion a year on C&IT, that is, about 10 per cent of the total higher-education turnover. The Committee feels, however, that since the cost of computer equipment is set to continue to fall, such a level of expenditure (which should be maintained) will be sufficient to cover future needs, especially if it is also supplemented by commercial partnerships.

As far as staff development is concerned, a crucial recommendation in the Report is a proposed Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education whose purpose will be to help establish higher-education teaching as a profession in its own right, and whose functions would include "professional achievement in the management of learning and teaching, commissioning research and development work into learning and teaching practices, and stimulating innovation and co-ordinating the development of innovative learning materials". The Committee envisages that the Institute will take a leading role in helping institutions to exploit the potential of C&IT for learning and teaching, especially in the delivery of online multimedia materials, a development which it sees as being of increasing importance and value (see below for more on the Institute).

Chapter 13 also addresses the issue of copyright and intellectual property, a minefield for developers of educational multimedia, and one which can seriously hamper progress. The Report, in a very welcome statement, calls upon the Government to consider how existing legislation might be amended to facilitate greater ease of use of copyright materials in digital form by teachers and researchers.

Other recommendations in Chapter 13 cover what, again, will be warmly welcomed by most ALT members, such as that:

  • appropriate network connectivity be made available for all sites of higher-education delivery and further education colleges by the year 2000, and connectivity to other relevant bodies in the medium term;
  • all institutions should supply networking to student residences and offer dial-up connectivity to students in their own homes;
  • higher-education institutions should be planning right now for the development and use of a Student Portable Computer, funded by students themselves but initially with help from the National Lottery, and that by 2005/06 all students will be required to have or to have access to one;
  • by the year 2001, higher-education institutions should ensure that all students have open access to state-of-the art networked desktop computers.

An interesting recommendation with respect to this last point is that each institution should publish the ratio of students to networked desktop computers in order to inform student choice before entry, something which in itself should of course stimulate improved provision. Once again, behind this recommendation, is the way in which the Committee sees C&IT playing an increasingly large role in curricula.

The other chapter which ALT members should read carefully is Chapter 8, which is also concerned in no small part with the impact of C&IT in learning and teaching.

One of the major themes of the chapter is that teachers will have to respond to a more

discerning and demanding student population, and that they will increasingly have to work "in partnership - or in competition - with publishers, film-makers and broadcasters as the growth of information technology opens up new ways of learning and teaching". The Committee is well aware that human contact gives "a vitality, originality and excitement that cannot be provided by machine-based learning", but that "through C&IT, it is possible to offer forms of contact and access to some highly effective learning materials that were previously unavailable for many students".

The Report identifies in Chapter 8, Points 23-26, numerous benefits, all of which will be familiar to most ALT members, so not worth repeating here, to be gained from C&IT in teaching and learning, especially given the success of the World Wide Web. However, the Committee states that, despite initiatives such as the CTI and TLTP, it is fully aware that there is as yet little widespread use of computer-based learning materials higher education, a situation which derives from the Not-Invented-Here syndrome and the limited availability of good materials. The Committee feels that the TLTP approach of pooling expertise is the way forward (though see below), with partnerships involving the publishing, communications or entertainment industries. And importantly, "for a full and successful integration into learning to take place, staff need to be effective practitioners and skilled in the management of students' learning through C&IT". Who amongst us would not concur?

Chapter 8 also concerns itself with the relationship between C&IT and the proposed Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. Here, the point made repeatedly by many of us involved in the field is heavily reinforced, namely that computer-based learning materials are valueless unless actually used. The Committee therefore sees a central role for the CTI centres working in close co-operation with the proposed Institute, especially in the production of packages which can be used widely, for example in the early stages of undergraduate programmes or for programmes that already have set curricula. The Institute would develop a system of kitemarking to identify good computer-based materials, to co-ordinate their national development, and to manage initiatives. As for funding, the Committee believes that the funds previously provided for TLTP would be better spent by the Institute, that is, by "an institutionally-owned body with a co-ordinated and focused mission towards learning and teaching development".

Among recommendations in the Report which relate to learning technology and which space has not allowed me to cover here, are:

  • that admission procedures should develop to value good levels of competence in [...] the practical use of information technology;
  • that institutions of higher education begin immediately to develop, for each programme they offer, a 'programme specification' which identifies potential stopping-off points and gives the intended outcomes of the programme in terms of [among other things] key skills in the use of information technology;
  • Many other points of interest and importance with respect to C&IT are contained in the Report. No short summary such as this one could hope to cover them all, but ALT members should be delighted with the major conclusions I outline here. The massive media reporting on Dearing - large headlines in newspapers and radio and TV news programmes, not to mention the much reported debate in the House of Commons - has concentrated, from what I have heard and seen, exclusively on the fact that students will from 1998 have to contribute towards tuition fees. This is not surprising because the recommendation, now accepted by the Government, will put an end to half a century of the principle of free higher education in the UK. However, that recommendation is only a very small part of the Dearing Report. Far more in evidence throughout is C&IT, particularly in teaching and learning.

The excitement will doubtless soon die down, and ALT will have to decide how best to capitalize on Dearing's recommendations. ALT was formed because a number of enthusiastic practitioners of and researchers in educational technology felt that the time had come for a concerted effort in the UK to raise awareness of the potential of computer-assisted learning and related areas. We must not be too modest: we have achieved many things. But two things we have not achieved to the extent that some of us had hoped for are the widespread integration of computer-assisted learning into curricula, and - closely related to that - widespread acceptance at the level of senior management within higher education of the need to change tack in the direction of educational technology. Some ALT members, despite heroic efforts, have come up against a wall made of sponge, bouncing back off it and seeing no change in its shape. We now have a powerful weapon at our disposal to break through that seemingly benign barrier from the ramparts of which nods in the right direction have been observed but with little or no real commitment to fundamental change.

The Dearing Report will be used as an ideal, perhaps not over the full 20 years intended by the Committee as the lifetime of the Report, but at least well into the next century. We should from now on make all we can of it when arguing our case with departmental colleagues, and, especially, with senior management. We should quote to the decision-makers Recommendation 42, that "all higher-education institutions should develop managers who combine a deep understanding of Communications and Information Technology with senior management experience". And with the New Text under our arm, we should take the Word to all the Doubting Thomases.

Gabriel Jacobs
European Business Management School
University of Wales
Swansea, SA2 8PP

Warwick ETS thanks the author for allowing us to republish this article which first appeared as a publication from the Association for Learning Technology on July 24th 1997 following the release of the Dearing Report.

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