Virtual Society?

the social science of electronic technologies



Education in the Virtual Society

Education in the Virtual Society
Report of the symposium
14th July 1999
Goring Hotel, Beeston Place, London



Arrival: tea and coffee

Professor Steve Woolgar (Director, Virtual Society Programme)

Chair: Dr Geoff Robinson CBE FREng (CEO, Ordnance Survey)

Professor Paul Light (Pro Vice-Chancellor, University of Bournemouth)
Networked computer use in higher education

Professor John Goddard (Pro Vice-Chancellor, Newcastle University) and Professor Kevin Robins (Newcastle University)
The Virtual University is the university made concrete

Dr Robin Mason (Head, Centre for IT in Education, Open University)
Technology for Global Education

Discussion (with a comment from Dr Malcolm Read, Secretary, JISC)

Pre-dinner drinks


Overview, Rapporteurs Reports and Conclusion


Brief overview of the initial presentations and discussion

Paul Light (University of Bournemouth)

University students using computer mediated communication (CMC) for education rely on constant social comparison against the learning of others and this links into gender and class issues. Students show marked shifts in their attitudes to the CMC as their courses progress. Initially, concern about social exposure is prevalent. However, this soon shifts to worries about printing costs and the difficulties of reading text on screen. No student wants to exchange a single hour of face to face tuition in return for more CMC. The students also develop creative ways of using the medium, becoming critical of it and thereby developing ownership. Surveys have also shown that prior experience with computers at home is the most important factor in determining confidence in CMC use. This has implications for future use of computers in education since it raises economic issues. The student experience overall is intensely social, but learning experiences are mostly solitary; social learning experiences are rare. Students rarely run computers without multi-tasking, and still use computers more for recreation than work. University students (at least in the 18-21 age bracket) are consistent in rejecting the basis of a virtual university.


John Goddard (University of Newcastle)

New technologies need to be able to coexist with traditional university structures, but with an awareness of the university as a corporate body which now has diverse sub markets (18-21 year old cohort, post-experience, lifelong learning). Drivers for change arise out of: the need for gains in efficiency since resource per student is declining; the existence of more diverse student bodies requiring recruitment (not selection), support and monitoring; more discerning 'clients' with experience of IT supported private services; and increase in competition and external pressures for quality assurance; and the need for a research and teaching resource and a community service brought together. Short term initiatives supporting ad-hoc projects result in pockets of innovation in university structures, but these are rarely systemised or managed, so a network of virtual universities cannot develop. Universities need to be able to be more integrated institutions with an enhanced capacity for internal knowledge management.



Robin Mason (Open University)

The majority of courses taught virtually are in the areas of business management, computers and IT awareness, professional updating and vocational leisure courses. The virtual environment has had less impact on traditional undergraduate subjects. It is interesting to consider whether IT drives educational change or whether social changes are the primary drivers: the common view is the former, whereas most research into technology-based courses shows that it is socio-psychological issues and limitations which determine success and failure. A general trend associated with the virtual society is that teaching and learning are moving to a focus on process rather than content, and a recognition that students require skills rather than facts. This and other factors are leading to significant changes in the curriculum at all educational levels. The Open University caters primarily for the adult learner, which is a different sector of the learning community than the 18-22 year old undergraduate market. There is a difference between distance learning and a virtual learning community. The nature and support of this type of learning is quite different to 'traditional' distance learning.


General discussion


Malcolm Read (JISC)

There is a spectrum of university resources, spanning from the traditional university set up through to the brokering role of the genuine virtual university. Some universities will fit within this spectrum as "commute" universities, serving students within a region. The virtual university may find it hard to break into the UK market, however it appears that the traditional university may fall behind if it does not take advantage of joined up technologies to develop complete computer support systems with administration and teaching processes combined. UK universities will always have the advantage of language, however far behind they might fall in technological terms.


Rapporteurs reports of discussion over dinner

Geoff Robinson (Ordnance Survey)


John Leighfield (RM plc)


Martin Ward(Marconi Communications)



Attendees Contact Details


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