Saturday, 6 December 2014

How the Internet and Technology Changed Education and Learning at Top Universities

It is more than 15 years since I completed my first university degree. And back then things were tough. All I remembered was spending hours upon hours at the library, photocopying articles upon articles to complete my assignments. Only to discover that most of the articles I photocopied were irrelevant! Then it was back to the library for more photocopying. How I managed to get through my university years... I don't know!

Image by ragesoss [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

This was a time before Google. A time where the 486 micro processor dominated and smart phones were still a figment of Steve Jobs' imagination. A time when the Internet was a play thing for geeks, and buzz worlds like "selfies", "Twitter" and "facebooking" did not exist.

About two years ago I returned to university to complete my MBA and things have dramatically changed. Gone are the days of spending countless hours in the library and hello to doing everything online. Every journal and academic resources were available to me at my finger tips. Photocopying was gone and now we have pdf's. Mobile technology and social media allowed me to stay in constant contact with lecturers and tutors. What a difference 15 years has made.

There is no doubt that technology has changed the way students study at universities. New tech is constantly being fed into the learning cycle. Some of the positive outcome include:

  • Audio and visual teaching aids have transformed the classroom, allowing for a richer learning environment and greater student participation.
  • Access to academic resources have never been easier as most universities start to bring everything online. As technology develops many universities are even starting to share resources thereby increasing and enhancing the available knowledge.
  • Communication and access to academics for feedback have never been more straightforward. In turn this has helped to improve interaction between peers and foster a cooperation unlike before. 
  • Technology has also helped to bring down one of the biggest barriers to higher education, geographical limitations. Many of the top universities are now experimenting with online courses meaning that people from all over the world can receive a first class degree. Of course this only works for some degrees and not all courses can be completed online.

However, with the good there also comes the bad and in some cases, the ugly. Although it is generally agreed that the impact of technology on our education system is mainly positive, there are some negative impacts too. These include:

  • An increased temptation to plagiarise by simply copying and pasting from online resources. This is probably the most serious of academic sins and can get students expelled from a course.
  • Meeting deadlines for submission of work has deteriorated with students leaving assignments to the last day, last hour or even last minute. New technology does not seem to improve the mindset of some students when it comes to submitting assignments and essays.
  • A heavy reliant on Google to always be there. This in turn has developed poor organisational and research skills. Rather then reading original sources and making their own decisions many students simply ask Google for the answers.
  • Technology, particularly miniature gadgets have also help to make it easier for students to try and cheat during exams. These include smart watches and miniature cameras where exam papers can be photographed and redistributed.
  • Social media such as Facebook and Twitter can be a distraction allowing students to loose focus and concentration.
  • Poorer reading and writing skills due to an over reliant on technology. In turn comprehension has also decreased and some students lack the basic skills to formulate ideas and solve problems.

While it can be argued that in this day and age there is less a need for learning how to use a pen nevertheless proper writing is an integral part of learning. Being able to formulate ideas and provide solutions will become an integral part of any employment opportunities. And technology in our education system can help to foster these essential skills. This what our education system should try and develop.

New technology is constantly being developed and computers are becoming more and more capable of controlling our lives. What will our universities look like in the next 15 years? Augmented and virtual realities are starting to become powerful tools and could change the way our children and our children's children are educated.

Like any tool, technology is only as effective as the person wielding it. It can be used to enhance or hinder the process. Our challenge now is to make sure that we use it at the right time and for the right purpose.

Social media too will no doubt change the way we interact with one another and the way we do business in the future and it will probably change the way we also learn. It will be exciting and challenging at the same time - let's see what happens.

Author: Vin Coh