Life at the virtual university


By Zanny Begg

The final report of the West review of higher education is to be released in late March. Interim reports have been filled with catchy slogans about a "fresh vision for higher education" that will take students "into the third millennium". One key element of this "fresh" vision is a fixation on information technology as "the future" of the education system.

One of the most revealing reports released from the West review is by the Tokyo-based think-tank Global Alliance Limited. GAL's submission welcomes the birth of the "virtual university", where students can log in on their own PCs and get a university degree without ever leaving the comfort of their homes.

According to GAL, computer-aided learning represents the "cutting edge" of teaching.

But behind the seductive rhetoric about "global communication" and "student flexibility and choice" lies a less pleasant reality.

Information technology has the potential to open the doors to worldwide communication. But as a substitute for teacher-student contact, it presents grave problems for the working conditions of staff and the quality of learning for students.

The escalating emphasis on information technology in the university system means job losses and the undermining of wages.

This is welcomed by GAL. Under a subheading "The tutor from the Philippines", the report asks: "Why should universities pay western wage prices for tutoring in relatively mundane, well-known subjects, when tutors with the same skills may be available at the other end of a fibre optic in another country at a much lower cost?".

The message is that university administrations should begin to exploit cheap labour in the Third World for "hack work" like exam marking.

The flip side is GAL's emphasis on elite "star teachers". Under a heading "The teacher as an international star", the report asks: "Why should students be content with having teachers who may not be world class? Why not give them the world's best, even if they are located in another country?"

For staff this means increased competition for jobs and increased pressure to perform. Few lecturers will become international "stars" while struggling to cope with funding cuts and increasing class sizes in the public university system.

GAL also welcomes the prospect of greater differentiation between the quality of teaching students can afford: "A student may be willing to pay US$500 for a course if they know that the tutor is world class. They may be willing to pay US$100 if they are from an Asian, lower middle-class household and are happy to have a tutor based in the Philippines."

The assumption is that those without money will get a poorer quality of education.

The GAL submission to the review calls for a move away from "chalk and talk" teaching into "cyberspace". It highlights examples of US computer-based universities like ZD University, Digitalthink and the University of Phoenix On-Line. According to GAL, they represent the leading edge of competitive education provision.

For students, the push away from contact teaching will further alienate them from what they are learning. With no face-to-face contact with teachers, how are they to ask questions about their education? How do students have input into the content of the education system when all they can do is log on and passively consume information?

Universities have long been gathering points for students, where radical ideas can be discussed. Direct contact between students and staff presents opportunities for students to organise, debate politics and question society.

Individual students sitting at home staring into their computer screens will not have the same opportunities to connect with other students. It will privatise the experience of education.

The use of information technology itself is not a concern. But the emphasis in the West review on information technology substituting for face-to-face learning is a grave threat to the quality of tertiary education.