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Harnessing the printing press for teaching efficiency gains

Jonathan Darby, Oxford University

I attended a debate recently at the Oxford Union with the motion "This House believes that the Internet will revolutionise teaching across British Higher Education". I found myself musing about the possibility of a similar debate with the word "printing press" substituted for the word "Internet" that might have taken place a few hundred years earlier, perhaps stimulated by the founding of the Clarendon Press. I suspect the motion on that occasion would have been defeated since how could replacements of hand-written manuscripts by printed equivalents do other than offer a small increase in the quality of learning at an additional cost. Surely nobody would have suggested that printed texts could be a replacement for original manuscripts. 

Of course we can now see with the benefit of hindsight that the printing press signalled the start of the massification of higher education. It changed it from an occupation for the very few to one that many more could aspire to. I suspect that today we are as blinkered to the possibilities of technology in teaching as I hypothesise were the dons of Oxford in the late 15th Century. We see technology only as an increment to existing practice and not as a means of transforming the nature of higher education. The oft-repeated statement "Technology will never replace the teacher" exemplifies this. We may not wish it to but others with different motivations may see that it does. 

If teachers in higher education wish to influence the future shape of their industry they will need to embrace the possibilities for radical change that technology offers. I do not believe that the future of Higher Education is to teach every larger number of 18-year-olds with the expansion funded through "efficiency gains". Rather, technology offers the possibility of meeting a much broader range of educational needs. A MORI State of the Nation poll on attitudes to learning carried out in 1996 showed that around 80% of the adult population would like to continue their education in some form but that only 30% thought they were likely to take any steps towards realising this aim during the next 12 months. Technology could change that. It could make tertiary education accessible and affordable for this missing 50% of the adult population whose needs we are failing to meet. 

I do not doubt that technology has the capability to substantially lower the cost of delivering courses to conventional groups of students, but this is to miss the point of the impact it is likely to have on educational delivery. If used creatively technology will redefine higher education. However failure to grasp this opportunity is likely to lead to the eclipsing of established higher education providers by a new breed of educational entrepreneurs who are untrammelled by the conventions and inertia of established practice

Jonathan Darby
Director, Technology Assisted Lifelong Learning (TALL) Programme
Department of Continuing Education
Oxford University

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