TV station needed for global business

Diane Spencer found adult educationists grappling with the pros and cons of new technologies

Adult educationists should form a consortium to provide an education and training television channel if the Government fails to designate one in the advent of digital television, a conference was told last week.

Naomi Sargant, visiting professor at the Open University, said it was "disgraceful that a nation committed to the achievement of the national education and training targets could fail to make the connection between these goals and the use of the new terrestrial opportunities for adult learning".

Speaking at the National Institute of Adult Education's annual conference at Warwick University, she said such a channel could broadcast traditional quality programmes, transmit live classes to remote sites, provide a materials distribution system and offer access to the Internet with tutoring and teleconferencing. "It is an opportunity not to be missed," she said.

Like other speakers on the conference theme of new technology, Professor Sargant was concerned about access. "The serious challenge is to use the new technologies to extend opportunity and not to exclude more people - to bring people into the information society, not to make more of them information poor."

Sir John Daniel, vice-chancellor of the Open University, warned of the dangers of competition in providing distance learning. Technology was making education even more of a global business. The Open University was a good example, with 20,000 students taking OU courses outside the UK.

But it's a game that others can play too, he said. Eleven "mega open universities" already existed with an enrolment of nearly three million students between them.

"Before I boast that the OU operates at about one-quarter the cost per student of the average state university in the United States, I have to remember that the Indira Gandhi National Open Univeristy in India operates at about one-tenth the cost of the UK's OU.

"So when today's burgeoning global networks and the falling costs of computing and telecommunications allow the Indian OU to operate world-wide, we shall need to watch out. Car manufacture moves from one country to another for a cost differential of a lot less than one to ten."

New technology could lead to passive learning, Mike Fitzgerald, vice-chancellor of Thames Valley University, warned. Students are producers as well as consumers, he said, adding he hated the word "consumer" as it implied passivity. "Students are producers of their own learning. Education is something you do; it is not something that happens to you."

Access to a mass of information could overwhelm and disable students rather than enlighten them, he added. "Education is not just about developing the needs of a technological society, it is also about social cohesion and citizenship."

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