Innovative solutions are required to mitigate the budget cuts brought on by the current financial crisis, but innovation is not always synonymous with hi-tech, speakers told the OECD's 2010 higher education conference in Paris last month. The need to redress the bias of research to the detriment of teaching was a recurring theme, as was a call for greater social responsibility in producing well-informed, responsible citizens.
A few years ago, e-learning was seen as the one-size-fits-all response to rising demand for higher education by changing, globalised student bodies. Now it is clear there is no quick fix.
Many programmes simply failed to provide quality education. Even worse, the proliferation of unregulated initiatives had led to "fraud and bogus degrees", said Qian Tang, Assistant Director-General for Education at Unesco, which strongly endorsed these types of projects.
Nonetheless, there is no denying that online services have simplified administrative tasks. Discussing questions and assignments via e-mail and other technological media allows for a more efficient use of both students' and professors' time.
Networking among academics, the exchange of ideas and sharing of research results played a vital role in maintaining education excellence, Brian Denman, a senior lecturer at the University of New England, Australia, said in a presentation on 'Invisible Universities and International Consortia'.
These associations were created because they provided a financial benefit of some kind, but they also recreated the types of exchanges universities have always maintained since they were created, he said.
He estimated that 9,000 informal networks of higher education professionals existed but was only able to distinguish 700 of them. Of these, half involved cross-border initiatives.
This type of information technology use, especially in physics and biology, among other things allowed global solutions to deal with 'killer viruses', said Nobel Laureate Luc Montagnier, president of the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention.
A 2010 UK review of e-communications tools and environments found that most of the tools, both from the private and public sector, were not made to be shared and catered to closed communities, Marilyn Leask, an information and communications technology designer, told the conference.
Teacher training is clearly in need of improvement and there is evidence that e-learning and distance training is efficient in this area. "We don't think much about what it takes to teach. But just putting someone in front of a classroom without training is no more than crowd control," Leask said.
However, while there is much information available on the internet, much of it is of poor quality. Leask proposed establishing professionally run, linked, interactive educational research databases. This would ensure freedom of expression, provide evidence-based data and quality archiving, she said.
Leask is currently devising an interactive database giving practical teaching advice in specific situations - how to make statistics interesting or teaching children with Down's syndrome, for example.
The UK's Open University also came to the conclusion that e-learning was efficient and appropriate in the domain of teacher training, said its pro vice-chancellor, Denise Kirkpatrick. The university offers a customised approach taken from a basic core programme. A project was launched to develop tools for use in Sub-Saharan Africa, she said. Here also, user input is critical to the viability of the project.
The successful application of the incremental approach to research was highlighted by Albert Sasson, a founding member of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Morocco. Innovation is not always a great leap forward in technology, he said, citing Cuba's bio-medical success brought about through a series of small hops forward.
"Now they export medical technology," he said. The same was true of the bio-agri sector. "China and Brazil have developed their own genetically modified varieties. They don't need to get them from Monsanto," he added.
To reap the benefits of the internet requires heavy investment in fibre optics infrastructure and this is lacking in many parts of the globe.
"Supplying education through technology requires the development of a national education policy," said Janyne Hodder, former president of the College of the Bahamas and an administrative board member of the International Association of Universities.
Obtaining investment in large-scale programmes for a small-scale project - the population of the Bahamas is only 350,000 - is daunting. "Despite our location, we don't have anyone doing solar research. Ours is a fragile marine system, yet we have no local ecological research facility," she explained.
Devising programmes is also complex because despite global links and partnerships "universities are very local", said Soumitra Dutta, a professor at top business school INSEAD in France. "Even in the US, they remain very local and regional," he said.
One local variable is changing student bodies.
In California, students are now on average 24 years old, they hold down full-time jobs, many have a family and English is often their second language. An innovative way to meet their needs is to offer classes in the evenings and at weekends, suggested Charles Reed, chancellor of the 23-institution California State University system.
"Today's students are different from those before. They know how to multi-task and their learning skills are different from those of their predecessors," explained Tim Birtwhistle, professor of law at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK.
"They can type faster than I can speak," added François Fourcade, a professor at ESCP-Europe.
Using a webcam to beam a lecture by a top professor to a group of students "who would then be left in the care of less qualified assistants" was one way for prestigious schools to form partnerships, especially abroad, INSEAD's Dutta suggested.
An irritated shrug was Bert Vandenkendelaere's response to these comments. "We are not against e-learning, but it can only be in addition to traditional classroom methods," said the chair of the European Students' Union, in an interview.
"It can't replace teachers - we need that contact," he added. Social networks are useful "but we need the classroom experience - debating and exchanging ideas with the teacher and among ourselves," he added.
One further lesson of the conference mentioned by speakers from the US, Africa, Russia, Poland and students themselves: quality higher education begins in primary and secondary schools. Higher education can only build on what has been acquired, they stressed, and cannot compensate for a lack of basic knowledge or skills.
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