The SLENZ Update – No 117, July 23, 2009


Universities must adapt roles for

students changed by Web 2.0



Some rapprochement will be necessary between  Web 2.0 – the social web – system and the current  “hierarchical, substantially introvert, guarded, careful, precise and measured” tertiary system if higher education is to continue to provide a learning experience that is recognised as stimulating, challenging and relevant.

This is a conclusion reached by the recently published (May 12, 2009) wide-ranging British Report of an independent Committee of Inquiry into the impact on higher education of students’ widespread use of Web 2.0 technologies.  The committee was chaired by Professor Sir David Melville (pictured) former Vice Chancellor of the University of Kent and the current chair of LLUK (Lifelong Learning UK) Council and of the JISC-funded Committee of Inquiry into the Changing Learner Experience.

Noting that  Web 2.0 has had a profound effect on behaviours, particularly those of today’s young people, “Higher Education in a Web 2.0 world” (PDF here) says in contrast  to the current university norms the  social web has  led  young people to a strong sense of communities of interest linked in their own web spaces, and to a disposition to share and participate. It has also led them to impatience – a preference for quick answers – and to a casual approach to evaluating information and attributing it and also to copyright and legal constraints.

“The two worlds are currently co-existing, with present-day students effectively occupying a position on the cusp of change,” the report said. “They aren’t demanding different approaches; rather they are making such adaptations as are necessary for the time it takes to gain their qualifications.

“Effectively, they are managing a disjuncture, and the situation is feeding the natural inertia of any established system.David Melville

“It is, however, unlikely to be sustainable in the long term,” the report said. “The next generation is unlikely to be so accommodating and some rapprochement will be necessary if higher education is

to continue to provide a learning experience that is recognised as stimulating, challenging and relevant.

“The impetus for change will come from students themselves as the behaviours and approaches, apparent now, become more deeply embedded in subsequent cohorts of entrants and the most positive of them – the experimentation, networking and collaboration, for example – are encouraged and reinforced through a school system seeking, in a reformed curriculum, to place greater emphasis on such dispositions.”

It would  also come, the report said,  from policy imperatives in relation to skills development, specifically development of employability skills. These would be backed by employer demands and include a range of ‘soft skills’ such as networking, teamwork, collaboration and self-direction, which were among those fostered by students’ engagement with Social Web technologies.

Higher education with a key role in helping students refine, extend and articulate the diverse range of skills they had developed through their experience of Web 2.0 technologies had to adapt to and capitalise on the evolving and intensifying behaviours that were being shaped by the experience of the newest technologies by  “building on and steering the positive aspects of those behaviours such as experimentation, collaboration and teamwork, while addressing the negatives such as a casual and insufficiently critical attitude to information.”

I’m  indebted to SLED lister, Dr Bob Hallawell,  of Academic Lead Learning Disabilities,School of Nursing, Midwifery and Physiotherapy, at the University of Nottingham,  for the heads-up on this interesting report. Education Guardian comment here and UK Web Focus report here.