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The Role of Technology in Higher Learning: A Reflection by the VC

Professor Sir Brian Follett, Vice-Chancellor, University of Warwick

It gives me much pleasure to introduce this edition of Interactions, particularly as it is the first edition of the new century. I am somewhat hesitant to offer too many thoughts on the ways that technology may impact on higher learning, and the role that such technology will have in the future. My reason is simple: it normally takes many years before one’s theories on the future are proved to be incorrect, but the pace of change in the technology of information is so rapid, one can be proved wrong within months!

One thing is clear: universities must start to integrate technology into all elements of teaching and learning, and in a short time will recognise that information and communications technology will be as much at home in any degree course as the lecture theatre and the seminar room are now. Today’s students have always used some form of IT in their learning and are actively encouraging their universities to make their learning experience more interesting and more stimulating. Tomorrow’s students will demand access to this technology and will judge their university on its ability to deliver.

The benefits of technology and its access to information should be immense. The Internet and related developments have gone a long way to break down arbitrary barriers that have limited access to knowledge. Students today can see and hear details of life and developments from around the world simply by switching on their PC. Some experts predict that it will not be long before they can also taste and smell through their PC! We are increasingly becoming used to an "any time/any place " culture, most clearly demonstrated through the advent of digital broadcasting. One of the greatest challenges for universities will be to accommodate this need for flexibility in structures that are intrinsically conservative.

Warwick has taken a number of steps to integrate technology into learning. Examples include the development of technology-based resources to support the short course and distance learning programmes, computer-based teaching and assessment in Physics and in Mathematics, and the development of materials for the Law Consortium. However, bigger steps will be required if we are to exceed the expectations of our students. Professor Susan Bassnett is Chairing the working group that will develop Warwick’s learning and teaching strategy to ensure that technology-based learning and teaching is developed as an integral part of this strategy, not an addition to it. Soon we will also be able to benefit from an improved email and intranet service, making communication throughout the campus quicker and easier. We have also set up a joint e-Learning Group with the University of Birmingham. 

I have left the greatest challenge until the end: the cost. This is the one problem that no-one as yet is able to solve simply. It is clear that all universities will have to make substantial investments in their ICT infrastructure, and not on a one-off, but on a rolling and growing basis. However at a time when resources coming into higher education, at least from the public purse, are less than inflation, how do we establish our priorities to ensure we do not miss out on the benefits of a technology driven future?

Professor Sir Brian Follett
University of Warwick

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