Reduce tech budgets, expert says

February 19, 2004, vol.29, no.4
By Howard Fluxgold



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Universities should reduce their expenditure on information technology and invest instead in buildings that support a wide range of innovative learning methods, says Clive Holtham, professor of information management at Cass business school at City University in London, England.

Holtham, who spoke at SFU in January on Virtual Learning Environments - end of the beginning or beginning of the end, believes too much money has been spent on expensive, but unproductive information technology. The latest rage being considered for implementation by universities, including SFU, is virtual learning environments (VLE). It allows professors to place online many of the tools, equipment and teaching techniques of the traditional classroom. This can include everything from reading lists to student discussion forums.

The problem with such software, and much e-learning software, is that it has been designed without due regard to pedagogy, Holtham maintains.

He pointed to what he calls the information technology hype curve to describe the life cycle of new technology, with five separate stages based on John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. “VLEs have been through a period of inflated expectations (the peak of the curve) and are now going through the trough of disillusionment,” he says. “If they're lucky, they'll get to the fourth stage, the slope of enlightenment.”

Holtham contends that too often the VLE software is introduced at universities to reduce face to face meetings between student and teacher and to save money. He related a true story about the “crazed university president” who introduced the software to reduce the role of the faculty as well as save money. “Many lectures were replaced by electronic work, but when students couldn't get access to computers it created computer rage. They began abusing professors and destroying computers.”

“While pedagogy-led VLE's can be very powerful, many VLEs just siphon money and resources from other types of e-learning,” he says. “Administrators believe one size fits all, but I have seen academics with the same desktop as insurance clerks even though their needs are completely different.”

Holtham believes we are headed for an e-learning bust similar to the dot. com bust. He says there is a long list of U.S. e-learning providers that have already gone out of business.

Holtham recently took part in the planning of a new state-of-the-art building for Cass business school which placed a premium on face-to-face contact.

“We spent $90 million on a high technology building with 5,000 points of connection to the internet for students. But we also built lecture halls with areas for small meetings. There is space for informal exhibits and formal displays, cafes and wide corridors where people can meet easily.”

Technology-literate students of today surprisingly don't want to be overly dependent on electronic gadgetry, he notes.

“I believe we may be reaching the apex of university spending on information technology. I think software manufacturers should be paying universities to use their software because university students are a future market for them. Unless we link VLEs with learning theory, they will be a vehicle to downgrade pedagogy.”

He says the best way to stop the juggernaut of inappropriate technology being foisted on unsuspecting students and professors is to reduce allocations to chief information officers.

At SFU there are currently four different VLE-type programs operating in various areas. Chief information officer Jim Cranston says that committees are currently considering what would best serve the campus.

“Our main thrust is pedagogical. We want the kind of technology that will best serve the needs of the faculty and students,” he explains. “However, the technology is expensive so it would be better if we could limit the number of applications we buy.”

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