Professor Stephen Brown
Head of Media and IT, De Montfort University,
De Montfort University is one of the largest universities
in the UK with over 29,000 students and 10 campuses in all distributed
between Leicester, Milton Keynes, Bedford and Lincoln. The farthest
campuses are separated by 160 Km. De Montfort has therefore
a real and critical need to find ways of making learning and
support opportunities equally accessible to large numbers of often
widely separated students. This is, inevitably, encouraging the
development and utilisation of resource based learning as a teaching
strategy and exploitation of IT networks to provide delivery and
support vehicles for that activity. This paper will describe
the organisational challenge of the distributed university: the
impact on staff and student expectations, their changing roles
and strategies for change.
Pressures are now growing which serve to undermine
the traditional structure of learning provision in Higher Education.
Relative to other competing nations, Western countries (the UK
and U.S.A. in particular) exhibit low levels of attainment in
schools, low levels of participation in HE, and underskilled and
inflexible work forces, with shortages of key skills apparent
even in times of recession. There is an increasingly urgent need
for cost effective, rapid retraining of the European workforce.
Factors contributing to this need include; general competitive
pressures to cut costs; the need to cope with a different work
patterns (encompassing job sharing, part time working, teleworking
and career breaks); a skilled labour shortage due to the decline
in birth rate and under-utilisation of women and minority workers;
rapid changes and advances in technology; rising unemployment
and the consequent increased competition for jobs; decentralisation
and globalisation of corporate resources; and increased labour
mobility within the EC.
Within Higher Education itself, there has been massive
expansion of student numbers. Between 1989/90 and 1994/5 the
total numbers of students in full and part time higher education
in the UK nearly doubled, from 761,000 to 1,270,000 (Fender 1996).
This expansion has been achieved within an overall expenditure
growth of only 4% in real terms over the same period, resulting
in an overall decline in the spending per student which is planned
to decrease further still, from £6858 in 1989/90 to £4365
in 1998/9 (CVCP 1996). The decline in the unit resource for teaching
has in turn increased pressures for changes in the way teaching
and learning is organised and carried out.
At the same time there have been rapid technological
developments in the fields of telecommunications, computing and
video. Increases in bandwidth, the development of compression
techniques for digital audio and video and international standards
for digital multimedia allow the delivery and support of high
quality, interactive multimedia learning materials over digital
computer networks, cable and satellite networks and, increasingly,
via the public switched telephone network. The most phenomenal
change has been the explosive growth of the Internet, and in particular
the graphical Internet interface known as the World Wide Web.
These technologies appear to offer educationalists the potential
of new vehicles for opening up access to education for large numbers
of new students experiences at low unit costs.
The increasingly rapid rate of change in the external
and internal environment of Higher Education has created uncertainty
and turbulence within the planning process, rendering traditional
approaches ineffective. According to Emery and Trist (1969),
turbulence is a characteristic of technological societies as a
result of faster and more complex interlinking. For example political,
defence, monetary and trading systems have become larger, more
complex and increasingly interdependent on a global scale. One
reaction to this situation has been to increase international
co-operation through organisations such as the United Nations,
the European Community, the International Monetary Fund, etc.
The common objective of such organisations is to increase co-operation
among their members and to reduce the disruptive effects arising
from competitive acts. We can see evidence of this kind of response
in contemporary UK Higher Education.
For example, there has been a tendency for educational
organisations to band together in increasingly larger units or
to seek to work collaboratively. Throughout the late 1980s and
early 1990s formal mergers or collaborative agreements between
HE and FE institutions have become common. Other obvious examples
of national and international co-operation are initiatives such
as the UK Teaching and Learning Technology Programme, CTI centres
and EC 4th framework research and development programmes. At
the same time there have been many smaller scale, local attempts
to improve the quality, flexibility and cost effectiveness of
teaching and learning through technology based innovations. These
have been facilitated by the rapidly increasing power and falling
costs of computing and telecommunications and courseware authoring
tools. In the last two years the rapid emergence of the World
Wide Web has fuelled further the urge to develop and publish learning
However, it is important to recognise that teaching
innovations cannot be simply an add-on to an otherwise unchanged
learning environment. The introduction of new methods brings
with it shifts in roles and responsibilities which fundamentally
challenge the values and self images of the key participants:
teachers and learners (Laurillard 1993).
The distributed University
De Montfort University is one example of expansion
through mergers and increased collaboration with other organisations.
Since 1984, Leicester Polytechnic, as it then was, itself an amalgam
of separate colleges, has merged with 4 other HE and FE institutions.
In addition it has formed a network of alliances with Associate
and Franchise colleges and primary and secondary schools. Student
numbers have grown from 8,000 in 1984 to around 29,000 in 1995/6.
The policy to become a distributed university has resulted in
an institution with 10 campuses spread over central, eastern England,
over 100 miles (160km) between its farthest points. The intention
behind the distributed university model is to offer, as far as
possible, equality of learning opportunities across and between
different campuses. This creates special challenges for the organisation
in terms of learning delivery and support. Widespread bussing
of staff or students to different campuses is not a viable option
economically, even if it were educationally. Alternative ways
have to be found to provide students with comprehensive, consistent
and quality learning experiences regardless of their locus of
The main campuses of De Montfort are linked electronically
through a wide area network that carries speech and data and connected
to the Internet via SuperJANET. The university has an innovative
approach to the use of information technology. It has a formal
IT in Teaching and Learning policy as part of its overall Information
Strategy and it was one of the first UK higher education institutions
to decentralise its computing facilities. Schools manage and
support their own computer facilities which are tailored to meet
specific requirements of their own programmes of study. The range
is extensive, including Apple multimedia platforms (e.g. School
of Applied Arts and Design, School of Design and Manufacture),
Silicon Graphics virtual reality workstations (e.g. Image Research
Centre), Sun CAD stations (e.g. School of Engineering and manufacture),
Amiga multimedia (e.g. School of Education) as well as IBM standard
PCs in most Schools.
In anticipation of the future importance of Telematics
in education, De Montfort has already invested significantly
in a number of separate, but related, pilot experiments in network
based learning delivery and support systems. Individually these
projects explore different aspects of the virtual or mixed mode
university. Collectively they can be seen to add up to a large
scale experiment in culture change.
1. Distributed study groups
As members of the European Open University Network
consortium, De Montfort established a telematics based Eurostudy
Centre to explore the possibility of reaching widely distributed
audiences of learners. The Eurostudy centre is one of 40 across
15 countries and has attracted 150 students across Europe. The
centres support courses developed jointly by consortium members
and delivered by a combination of face to face tuition, live
satellite broadcast, interactive multipoint video conferencing,
e-mail, computer conferencing and printed workbooks. The primary
medium of instruction is print, but the main communication channels
between students and their tutors are e-mail and computer conferencing,
via a proprietary closed system called 'First Class'. This allows
for messages to be sent, questions to be asked, feedback to be
given, etc., at any time, whenever it suits the individual. Students
are encouraged to use the facilities of First Class to communicate
with each other, to form self help groups and to collaborate.
Local face to face support is available but videoconferencing
provides opportunities for staff and students on the whole course
to meet with each other in real time to discuss issues. Live
satellite transmissions from a single centre have been used to
enhance the quality of the video signal and to provide a simultaneous
visual link to multiple sites. De Montfort has been the most active
of all the UK centres and the results so far have been encouraging,
demonstrating that it is technically possible to run courses telematically
which overcome the problems of loneliness and isolation traditionally
experienced by distance learning students. Further European Union
funding has been obtained to extend the research project via dial
up ISDN access.
2. Learning Resources on the World Wide Web
STILE (Students and Teachers' Integrated Learning
Environment) is one of over seventy Teaching and Learning Technology
Programme projects funded by the UK Higher Education Funding Councils
(Zhao and Patel 1995).
The main purpose of STILE is to make it easier for
non technical authors to create Web based pages of learning resources
without having to learn detailed skills of programming in HTML.
While HTML authoring is not inherently difficult, antipathy towards
computers is one of the major barriers to acceptance of computer
based teaching among established teachers and trainers (Brown
and Kirkwood 1995). The aim here therefore was to make the authoring
process as natural and transparent as possible. A simplified
tool set or 'trivial mark-up language' (TML) was created to allow
authors to convert existing data from conventional electronic
text or database form. In addition, supplementary editing tools
allow users to modify their own materials.
The essence of STILE is the concept of a network
of interlinked topics which can be rapidly defined and then readily
navigated by others. Within each topic there are pieces of information
(i.e. text, images, etc.) known as 'nuggets' which help to define
the topic and there are pointers to the resources which make up
that topic. Resources may be digitised materials directly accessible
from the topic, or they may equally be information about the location
and content other media entities which have to be accessed separately
(e.g. books, video, slides, etc.). Topics can be grouped together
to create clusters which form coherent systems of resources with
strong and frequent internal links and cross references.
The layout of STILE pages conforms to a standardised
template containing spaces for two different kinds of information.
The first kind, which is mandatory, lists the topic title, authors
name, document creation date and a textual description of the
topic. The second kind of data field is optional and it allows
authors to include links to related topics in their own cluster,
links to topics owned by other users and pointers to actual resources
At De Montfort, STILE has been adopted by tutors in design related areas and used to develop learning resources covering the following topics:
Preliminary findings are that although overall students are finding STILE useful and enjoyable to use, its usefulness is limited by:
3. Learning on the Internet for schools
The goal here was to connect seven UK primary and
secondary schools to the Internet and to work with those schools
to identify the opportunities and issues this raised. The project
was established and managed by a consortium of computer and telecoms
hardware and software suppliers working together with educational
institutions to develop and test innovative applications of IT
to teaching and learning. The idea, as implemented, was to invite
various commercial suppliers to provide, free of charge, the necessary
hardware, software, connections and technical support to establish
and run local area networks in each of the selected schools. Because
the technical infrastructure was being supplied by a variety of
different suppliers, many of whom are in direct competition with
each other, each school was provided with a different set of equipment
and software. The schools themselves were linked, via ISDN to
two local support centres: Tresham Institute of Further Education,
Northants, serving 4 schools and De Montfort University, Leicester,
serving 3 schools. De Montfort, in addition, provided all the
users with a gateway to the Internet, via its JANET connection.
De Montfort was heavily involved in:
· Arranging delivery of hardware and software from participating suppliers to the schools.
· Arranging staff development events for schools.
All schools experienced problems in getting the equipment to function fully and these problems limited the kinds and level of use made of the systems installed. Only four out of the seven schools established Internet connectivity. Access was further restricted because only one school at a time could connect to the Internet via the shared ISDN link. Once on the net, teachers reported that the "biggest single problem" was the level of Internet traffic (Leask 1996). Because teachers did not have reliable connections to support the work of particular lessons, development of integrated class-based activities was difficult. Internet resources were used instead to provide:
However, despite technical problems, pupils responded
enthusiastically and teachers reported use for a variety of purposes,
both social and research to support learning, involving e-mail
and data collection.
4. Multimedia student services
Project PILOT is an 18 month collaborative project
involving De Montfort, the Open University and Humberside University
to develop a prototype networks based multimedia student work
placement and support service, funded by British Telecom. Many
employers claim that a significant proportion of UK graduates
lack essential core skills such as interpersonal skills and those
graduates that do have such skills often gain them through periods
of involvement in real work environments.. The problem is finding
appropriate work based projects and placements for students.
This project aims to develop a model for a network based database
of candidates and vacancies to link UK businesses and universities
and to make the information accessible via public access networks:
ISDN, PSTN and using a range of technologies: fax (and fax-back),
e-mail, World Wide Web multimedia.
The project objectives are to:
This project is in progress. Work completed so far
includes definition of requirements and creation of data flow
diagrams for systems development. Some pilot interface screens
have been developed and published on the World Wide Web (http://mcie002.open.ac.uk/pilot/home.html).
Preliminary findings indicate that while students and companies
welcome the concept, University placement officers are less supportive.
They tend to view it as potentially threatening to their own
role rather than as a tool to assist them.
5. Telematics delivery
In October 1995 we launched a new course on Architecture
and Urban Design in October 1995, using a combination of traditional
teaching methods and telematics course delivery and support methods.
Traditionally architecture courses have been resource hungry:
needing large studios, model making facilities and heavily reliant
on intensive tuition. The aim here was to move away from conventional
studio and lecture based teaching to deliver and support teaching
and learning through the use of media, in particular on-line multimedia
resources and computer mediated communications. The model is
particularly relevant in the context of expansion of part-time
student numbers and the notion of life-long learning. This year
our contribution to the course has been:
An assumed prerequisite for study on this course
is an Apple Powerbook which students need to access key course
Initial staff and student response to the course
has been very positive, but a major component of the strategy
had to be omitted at the last minute because of cost constraints.
The original intention was to cable the student halls of residence
and so provide out of hours access via the University LAN to electronically
stored course materials, e-mail and conference systems and wider
Internet access. The costs of installation and ongoing support
were regarded as unacceptable. Cost estimates for bedroom data/telephony
alone were £500 per room (10% of total room cost). This
was for initial cabling only, excluding system upgrades and student
computing support implications. It was not possible for the University
to bear this cost, nor was it regarded as acceptable to transfer
the cost to students occupying the study bedrooms.
It is recognised in the University's strategic plan
that its academic programme should move towards greater embedding
of open and resource based learning, with particular emphasis
on electronic networks. The potential benefits are easy to list:
· More effective, self-reliant learners.
· Release of academic staff from repetitive, routine presentation of information.
· Increase in student numbers without pro rata increases in staffing or decrease in quality of learning.
· Increase in off campus student numbers without increases in staffing and accommodation or decrease in quality of learning.
· Enhancement of the University's reputation as an innovative organisation.
However this cannot be achieved overnight. There
are significant barriers to be overcome:
· Inadequate University IT infrastructure to support effective electronic delivery and assessment.
· Little spare academic time to invest in developing new teaching and learning approaches.
· Absence of 'champions' or 'change agents' at key points in the organisation to effect change.
· Need for
front loaded investment in a diminishing resource environment.
Consequently, despite the considerable innovative effort outlined in the preceding sections the bulk of the teaching activity in the university remains largely unaffected by change. To realise its objectives the University has recognised the need to address the following interrelated requirements:
· Change of teaching and learning methods to make more use of media components and support systems, e.g. video lectures, self teach texts, computer based assessments, Internet based lectures and projects, etc.
· Development of alternative delivery and support infrastructures to support the above.
of staff skills and attitudes in relation to use of media and
resource based learning methods to exploit the above.
These requirements are not unique. The emphasis
currently placed on dissemination of the results of the TLTP addresses
similar issues to do with promulgation and embedding of best practice.
Previous experience at De Montfort has been that, while small-scale
local innovations can be introduced by enthusiastic individuals,
for significant change to take place institutionally, infrastructural
issues have to be addressed, a critical mass of activity has to
be fostered and there has to be a real shift in the culture of
the organization. Changes on any single dimension have knock
on effects for and are hampered by lack of development within
the other two.
Two major programmes of culture change are now underway to bring about these changes:
Both projects entail major programmes of staff development through awareness raising seminars, ideas and concept development workshops and staff skills development training. The aim in both cases is to bring about a change in culture on a sufficiently scale to become self sustaining. The first is concerned with identifying learning resource materials produced elsewhere which are relevant to our own courses (e.g. TLTP, OLF, OU, etc.) and working with staff to adopt and embed these materials where appropriate. The second is focused more on the infrastructure requirements of resource based learning, the mind sets and the skills need to develop effective approaches of this kind. The distinguishing characteristics of both projects are:
Enabling academic staff to take time out to evaluate learning resources produced elsewhere.
Enabling academic staff to publicise and explain innovations in their own teaching methods.
Creating a reward culture for effective teaching developments.
Targeting strategic developments and priming them
with additional resource.
These last two projects are only just beginning,
so it is too early to report in detail on findings as yet. Their
very existence however shows that the university is reacting to
turbulent change by beginning to attempt to co-ordinate teaching
and learning innovations centrally rather than relying on independent
localised initiatives. Systems theory predicts that this approach
should prove more effective in the complex interactive environment
of contemporary UK Higher Education.
Brown, S. and Kirkwood, A. 1995 'An Appraisal of
Quality: Distance Learning in BT'. In One World Many Voices.
Sewart, D. (ed.) Vol. 2, pp 53-56. The Open University,
UK. Proceedings of the 17th World Conference of the
International Council for Distance Education, Birmingham,
UK, 26-30 June 1995.
CVCP 1996 'Public Expenditure Needs of Universities'
The Newsletter of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals
of the Universities of the United Kingdom Vol. 2, No. 14.
Emery, F.E. and Trist, E.L. 'The Causal Texture of
Organisational Environments.' in Emery, F.E. (Ed.) Systems
Fender, B. 1996 'Higher Education's dependency on
IT'. Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association
management conference, March 27-29, Torquay, UK.
Laurillard, D. 1993 Rethinking University Teaching:
A framework for the effective use of educational technology.
Leask, M. 1996 Project Connect Curriculum Development
and Evaluation Group: Final Report. De Montfort University,
Zhao, Z. and Patel D. 1995 Zhao, Z. and Patel D.
1995 'An on-line resource based learning environment'. In Jonassen,
D and McCalla, G. (eds.) Proceedings of ICCE 95: International
Conference on Computers in Education, pp 315-323. December
5-8 1995, Singapore.
Professor Stephen Brown
Head of Media and IT
De Montfort University
Tel: +44 116 257 7173
Fax: +44 116 257 7170