Computers & Texts No. 15
Table of Contents
August 1997

Dearing & IT: Some Reflections

Michael Fraser
CTI Textual Studies

The publication of the Dearing Inquiry's report into Higher Education was closely followed by a one-day Colloquium on the implications of the report's pronouncements concerning the use of Communication and Information Technology (C & IT). This article highlights a few of the report's recommendations in this area together with glosses provided by speakers at the CTI-organised colloquium, and some reflections on the implications for learning and teaching in the humanities.


And now, if I may take for granted that the true and adequate end of intellectual training and of a University is not Learning or Acquirement, but rather, is Thought or Reason exercised upon Knowledge, or what may be called Philosophy, I shall be in a position to explain the various mistakes which at the present day beset the subject of University Education. (Newman, The Idea of a University, 101)

The last year or so in UK Higher Education will be remembered as the beginning of constructive change for university education and research, culminating in the publication of the Report of Sir Ron Dearing's National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education. At the present time of writing the Government and, for the most part, the media have concerned themselves only with the question of fees. However, given the number of decisions which appear to have been postponed in order to 'wait for Dearing' we can, I imagine, expect to see activity recommence throughout other areas of Higher Education.

The observations and commentary leading up to the publication of Dearing's Report was marked by quotations drawn from one work in particular, The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman. One assumes that commentators did not only choose to quote from this work because its title was particularly convenient to the moment, but it is curious that this particular work should be alluded to on occasions such as these, given that it comprises a series of lectures delivered for a very specific situation and that it advocates, on the whole, the creation of a Catholic Oxford University on the banks of the Liffey. Until recently the work appeared to be more popular across the Atlantic than in this country. Jaroslav Pelikan's The Idea of a University: A Reexamination (1992) is often cited and Yale University Press recently issued a new edition of Newman's work together with a set of essays including 'Newman and an Electronic University' by George P. Landow (1996). Perhaps Newman's explicit treatment of a Liberal Arts education lends itself more easily to institutions in the United States than it does here.

The CTI organised a one-day 'Dearing and IT' colloquium at which, incidently, Newman was not cited. The speakers represented a number of members of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (Professor Diana Laurillard, Sir William Stubbs, Sir George Quigley), who gave comments on and personal responses to the C&IT elements of the Report. Other key figures with an interest in IT in HE also gave responses to the recommendations of the Report. This paper will consider a number of issues which arose, and consider their implications for the future of IT in HE teaching.

The Development of IT Learning Materials

The Dearing Report is concerned to record that recommendations in the area of IT and teaching are led by the 'educational imperative' rather than the technology. Much of the sections relevant to the use of new technologies attempt to resolve the problems associated with using C&IT, the first of which is its cost in terms of time and funds, and the second of which is the relative scarcity of materials where value of the content outweighs the difficulties inherent in its mediation by computer.

The electronic publishing and software industries never seem to grow old. The development of computer-based materials is thus always expensive and any economic benefits, at least, are notoriously difficult to identify. If 'courseware' is to be developed then economies of scale can only really be gained if a national curriculum for HE is put in place, not one of the recommendations of the Dearing report. Tension inevitably arises because of the idiosyncratic ways in which a given subject is taught across institutions, making it particularly difficult for lecturers to make use of materials developed by colleagues elsewhere. To dismiss this as either an attitude of the 'not developed here' syndrome, or as a concern to reinvent the wheel, risks negating the position that higher education is less about the 'data' than it is about cultivating the skills to interpret the data, and to evaluate one's own interpretation against the interpretations of others. This is particularly true for many humanities subjects where on the one hand the data (or subject matter) is vulnerable to attack from utilitarian views of university education, but on the other hand where the skills of data management and the ability to evaluate and communicate an interpretation of the data should be distinctly transferable.

The relatively few demonstrably successful TLTP projects funded to create materials achieved their success through a combination of collaboration within a consortium of institutions, original content, good design, and careful consideration being given to publication or dissemination. Diana Laurillard espoused the view that the development of in-house materials either by individual academics, or by a single department solely for their own requirements, should be discouraged. This is not necessarily meant to prevent the enthusiasts in the department from creating Web sites, for example, but rather an acknowledgement that the creation of computer-based materials can at the very least prove to be a time-consuming distraction from the job specification of a lectureship. There is a problem, even at the level of quick and easy publication on the Web, if the writing of the HTML occupies more or even half the amount of time actually devoted to creating the content. A preoccupation with design at the level of complex multimedia products tends to have unfortunate repercussions on content. Ideally, therefore, the development of materials for higher education should be a collaborative exercise: first, collaboration amongst peers to provide the content which, after all, is what most academics do best and then second, collaboration between academics and those who are best placed to undertake the design and dissemination.

Whilst it would be possible to line up academic staff who can and, given the right incentives, will provide the content for computer-based resources, it is uncertain that we have the equivalent by way of designers and disseminators. Many of the traditional academic publishers now have a section devoted to electronic publishing and Routledge or Blackwells, for example, will consider digital materials for student use. However, whilst publishers are gradually developing their infrastructure to cope with the demands of electronic publishing there is also a growing movement which advocates subverting the publisher by self-publishing on the Web, for example. There will be, then, a growing number who will not be keen to enter into partnerships with the publishing industry unless the contractual terms and conditions are more favourable for the copy and use of electronic materials than they have hitherto been for the copy and use of printed material. Having said that, a problem which has plagued both the in-house development of materials and national programmes such as the TLTP is that whilst those providing the academic content tend to have fairly solid base within their department, the technical staff are habitually appointed only for the time of the project. When the project is complete and the funds are spent the academic staff remain in place but the technical staff move on taking their expertise and support with them. If academic staff are to be encouraged to provide content and discouraged from tinkering with the technical side, and if academic publishers are considered unsuitable for the task, then there needs to be developed a sensible means by which a consortium of academic content-providers can collaborate with advisors, designers, programmers, and other production staff. Either the model could be similar to that of the recent HE Digitisation Centre based at the University of Hertfordshire funded by the JISC (in association with a commercial data service), or institutions will require incentives to set-up regional CBL development units. Either way, it is important that the production staff are no less secure than the academic content-providers.

The Use of Materials

Many of the respondents at the Dearing & I.T. colloquium remarked upon the acute lack of suitable computer-based materials and spoke of the need to achieve a critical mass. If C&IT is really a revolution which will exceed the cultural changes consequent on the invention of the printing press then the future promises a diversity and quantity of digital objects comparable to the diversity and quantity of printed books and, more significantly, established processes by which they might be created. At present the creation of digital resources is still sufficiently expensive and fluid to elicit remarks about wheel technology if, for example, more than one digital edition of the works of Shakespeare is published. From the academic's point of view electronic materials, whether for research or teaching, should be as easy or as difficult to produce as the publication of a book.

A growing consensus suggests that the creation and use of fixed courseware is not the most efficient or productive way forward. Diana Laurillard spoke at some length on resource-based learning and advocated it as currently the most effective use of computer-based materials. This is an area which is particularly appropriate to humanities subjects such as literary studies, classics, theology etc. where the publication of digital resources for research purposes has far outnumbered the publication of humanities 'courseware'. The Centre for Textual Studies has long encouraged the exploration of how, for example, fulltext databases might be used for teaching and learning purposes (see for example, Robertson 1996). Resource-based learning in general has an advantage of including within it printed works, computer-based materials, and resources in other media forms. Resource-based learning, rather than computer-based learning draws attention away from the medium and back to the content, assuming that a 'resource' has something inherently useful about it. The possible disadvantage is that resource-based learning can be used to avoid confronting decreasing staff-student contact time and regularise solitary learning. This has to be reconciled with the premise from which the Dearing Report begins, that the ideal in university education is community learning in the company of others. Ernie Haidon, responding in part to Laurillard, suggested that the communication part of C&IT can ensure that individual learning need not be a solitary experience.

For digital resources to be used effectively the minimum which students require are guidelines which enable them to quickly locate the appropriate parts, to enable the evaluation of interpretations which frequently require a different methodology than, for example, the evaluation of an argument in a printed work, and to enable self-learning through browsing and, in the case of large databases, the testing of personal hypotheses. On the other end of the scale some digital resources, such as high resolution or networked moving images, will require the development of an interface between the student and the raw data. The key is to find a means of avoiding costly development of what is effectively a new product, whilst being able to customize available digital resources to ensure that they are integrated into the course structure and content. The Perseus Project provides one possible model, given that it is one of the most successful resources designed for teaching in the humanities. At the heart of the Perseus Project lies a collection of primary resources loosely connected by their relevance to the study of Ancient Greece. This material is surrounded and interfaced by various tutorial aids, and the CD-ROM edition encourages the creation of customised paths through the vast database. It is a well-funded project with established academic input, distributed both on CD-ROM by an international publisher and made freely available on the Web.

Screenshot of Perseus project

The Perseus Project on the Web and CD-ROM: is digital resource-based learning the future for C&IT in the Humanities?

Screenshot of Perseus on cd-rom

Institutional Strategy

The use of C&IT in learning and teaching might result in a better quality of learning; it might result in a more efficient means of learning; it will always result in higher costs. The use of C&IT is too expensive to be used to merely enhance a course; where it is considered appropriate it requires proper integration if any benefits, qualitative or quantitative, are to ensue. From this, a paraphrase from Diana Laurillard's presentation at the Colloquium, flowed the core of Dearing's proclamations on C&IT in teaching and learning: that senior university management must have a deep understanding of C&IT and that at a departmental, institutional, and national level there must be coherent IT strategies in place. The strategies must encompass not only the creation of digital resources and the provision of appropriate hardware and support but, more significantly, must be part of a much wider strategy to ensure that excellence in teaching is finally put on a par with excellence in research. If research and teaching, as it is acknowledged, are integral to what it means to be an academic, then it should follow that incentives are created for academics to be as good at teaching as they are at research. On a national scale this has undoubtedly to require monetary incentives; on an institutional level effective teaching practice must be acknowledged in promotion strategies; and at a micro-level the single academic should be as effective using C&IT in teaching as in research (with all the support mechanisms that might imply). The full integration of research and teaching is also implied within one of the justifications for the Report's recommendation of a research council for the Arts and Humanities: the recognition that advanced and applied scholarship in the humanities informs and enhances teaching. In addition, the Report advises that the same IT infrastructure is needed for arts and humanities subjects as for the experimental subjects: 'in some respects, the technological advances that we have discussed elsewhere will have proportionally greater influence in subjects that depend on library access and on bodies of data, than in some of the sciences' (11.52). And, perhaps unlike some of the science disciplines, these same bodies of data, and the same hardware to access them, might also be fruitfully employed by students.

The proposed Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education is intended to confirm the real (rather than merely admitted) importance of HE teaching. It includes amongst its remit the accreditation of teaching and the kitemarking of course materials. To be credible and to integrate itself into UK higher education it will require some form of peer review of both teaching practice and of course materials. The Institute also has a remit as a resource for the use, procurement, and development of digital resources for learning, in which the CTI is expected to form a significant role. If the Institute is created with this particular remit then it will have the potential to provide some partial solutions to the tensions between the creation, dissemination, and use of digital resources outlined above.


Asked to choose between a University which required no residence but gave degrees to anyone who passed exams in a wide-range of subjects and a University which had no professors and no examinations but merely brought people together for three or four years before sending them away, and then to say which was more successful in training, moulding, enlarging the mind and kitting them out for the working world, Newman responded, 'I would have no hesitation in giving the preference to that University which did nothing' (Idea, 105). The efficient but 'virtual' university was London, and the quite inefficient but communal University was Oxford where Newman had complained so bitterly about the standard of teaching and learning in his day. The Dearing Report, in so far as it concerns teaching, learning, and technology seeks a via media between the two extremes of the simply utilitarian distance-learning and the (dubious) luxury of resource-based self-learning within an atmosphere of scholarship. Of course, as Adrian Boucher pointed out at the Colloquium, the Dearing Report assumes the continued attendance at a physical university which, if life-long learning and the implications of a global education market are to be taken seriously, will not be the only option. Globalization and widening access is one of the results of communication and information technologies. By now we should know what we can do with the technology; the time of short-term initiatives and projects is over and the time of effective integration of that which has proved to work, through a clear management of strategies is here. If the educational imperative is to remain at the forefront then it is not so much a cultural change in higher education to allow for the full admission of C&IT that is required but rather the enculturation of C&IT into educational processes which have already been established as beneficial. As Professor Lewis Elton phrased it, if information technology had not happened then would there be a need for a change in learning?


Landow, George P. (1996). 'Newman and an Electronic University' in The Idea of a University, 339-61.

Newman, John Henry (1996). The Idea of a University. Ed. Frank M. Turner. Yale University Press.

Robertson, Hugh (1996). 'An information network for students of literature'. Computers & Texts 12: 15-18.

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 15 (1997), p.2 Not to be republished in any form without the permission of CTI Textual Studies.

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