Come and join us on the cyber campus

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Stephen Heppell invites the curious and the adventurous to join a pilot scheme that will build a new environment for learning

Trawling through two decades of technology-supported learning in the National Archive of Educational Computing here in Chelmsford is often a depressing experience. Time and time again promising initiatives foundered because of insufficient flexibility in institutional organisation, in curriculum, in pedagogy and in the time made available for action research.

It wasn't that a revolution was needed before any of the initiatives could work (this is Britain, after all), simply that the institutional dice were usually loaded too heavily against change. That is probably why we have no Mode 3 CSEs or Records of Achievement or continuous assessment any more, let alone the introduction of word processing in the exam room or a UK teacher network in cyberspace.

Today, with our educational institutions under siege from finance,standards, new expectations, competition and the uneasy fit between politicians' promises and reality, the opportunities to really allow teachers, students, managers and parents to be action researchers - exploring what really does work and what does not - too rarely occurs.

New initiatives concentrate too often on finance, too little on learning. For example, faced with a blank sheet of paper and the invitation to "think the unthinkable" with higher education, Sir Ron Dearing is rumoured to have invented an imaginative way to lumber students who have already given up five years of earnings with the opportunity to amass new and previously "unthinkable" debts (a bit like asking soldiers to pay for their tanks and missiles on higher purchase). You can imagine the stampede out of teacher education.

All of which would seem a bit depressing but for three hugely significant factors, the coincidence of which is probably unique in our learning lifetimes.

First, we are at the beginning of what already looks clearly like a defining opportunity for change: we have a new government in place pledged to the widely accepted conclusions of the Stevenson report that openly acknowledges the need to change systemic barriers (like the examination system) if we are to move learning forward. This is a government, moreover, that looks to academia and research for advice.

Second, after 20 years of fits and starts, we do finally seem to be getting some genuinely powerful computers that really are, as Apple used to say, "for the rest of us". And remember, every other household with school-age children has a computer already, a home revolution in itself.

Finally, the whole country, and arguably much of the rest of the world, seems to have gone learning mad. "Education, education and education" helped win the election. Lifelong learning is on everyone's lips. Magazines trumpet learning on their covers, while on weekend morning television they actually explain how the cartoons were made and mathematician Carol Vorderman is almost a mega-star. This is the Learning Age. If you do not believe it, try searching for "Spice girls" on the Internet. It will reveal a meagre 3,000 links, while "pedagogy" registers a huge 26,437.

Taken together, these three factors present a real opportunity for change, rather than revolution: a committed and radical government, technology that delivers rather than promises and learning at the heart of culture as well as the economy.

Into this burgeoning arena of potential comes a small and fortuitous concept: Gordon Brown's notion of a University for Industry to boost the skills and knowledge of the workforce, but unfettered by the institutional and systemic barriers that have restrained learning change in the past. It is fitting that learning professionals, in the widest possible sense, should be the first action researchers and learners to pilot the concept.

A recent report by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) argued that the university should be a "national learning network", bringing opportunities for learning to people where and when it is most convenient: in the workplace, in the home and in local, community-based centres.

The IPPR and Ultralab are jointly managing a pilot project starting in September. It is brave with pedagogy for once, rather than with finance. The pilot project starts with the simple hypothesis (indeed, conviction) that an eclectic group of individuals, sharing a common interest (learning), can both learn from and with each other, can do it in quite short "units of delivery" and across the Internet while maintaining quality and level (in this case post-graduate) in a way that is tailored to their working, or home, lives.

Previous experiments have suggested that the quality of learning supported in this way can be sociable, can offer real satisfaction to all participants and will, because the debate and seminars are spread over time, offer students the chance to reflect before making a contribution. The result is that the quality of debate is higher than might be hoped and participation is more democratic while the "light touch" tutorial support is a pleasure for all. By the way, for those still interested in the finance of all this, the model is so cheap that participation will leave you debt-free. Indeed participation in the pilot will be absolutely free.

We are looking for people to take part in this exciting initiative. The first pilot lasts for 10 weeks, very much part time. You can fit it into evenings or coffee breaks. Some of the learning professionals in the project will be practising and experienced. The pilot is also interested in attracting those who are engaged in commercial training, those who are newly qualified, those who wish to return to teaching after a break, those who have recently retired and some parents.

Participants need not necessarily be qualified teachers but may also be from a college, a university, a museum or gallery, a company or from corporate training. Apart from enthusiasm, the only other requirements for participation are a computer and easy access to the Internet and the World Wide Web.

The University for Industry concept is not about building a new university - we have enough already. Nor is it about capturing all the knowledge in the world on to a CD-Rom or Web site - there are plenty of such attempts gathering dust in our archive. It is about exploring genuinely radical new ways to deliver learning while keeping it pleasurable, affordable and relevant.

This initiative will not founder for want of institutional flexibility; there is no institution, only people, wires and computers. Nor will it fail from an obsession with finance; it is cheap and pragmatic already. Nor will it fail for lack of political will; it grew from political rhetoric.

It might be said that politicians' promises are like buses, you wait ages for one and then a whole lot come along at once. On closer inspection you find that most of them are - like the buses in my neighbourhood - broken. The University for Industry looks like being a sound-bite that can break the mould, offering a genuine opportunity to push through the barriers of organisation and discover a new learning environment that works.

Chances like this come along even less often than buses. Get on board early and see where the journey leads. The first excursion starts this September.

* For details of the pilot, contact Josh Hillman or Leonie Ramondt at the Institute of Public Policy Research, 30-32 Southampton Street, London WC2E 7RA Tel: 0171 470 6100e-mail: * Ultralab is a learning technology research centre at Anglia Polytechnic University on the Chelmsford Central Campus. Tel: 01245 252 009Web site http:www.ultralab.anglia. * Stephen Heppell is director of Ultralab

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