Out of the ivory tower and into the virtual space

Out of the ivory tower and into the virtual space

Evolving technology is fast changing the nature of teaching in schools.

It looks as if the IT genie is out of the bottle in academia, and turning ivory towers into virtual entities. Not that academics have always been perceived as having their feet on the ground anyway, but they, and their colleagues in the computer centres, have been busy harnessing cyberspace to disseminate knowledge. The global market size of IT in education this year is estimated by Gartner as US$8.9 billion, with a compound annual growth rate of 5.5 per cent from 2007 to 2010. Put simply, "IT has been used in education as a main infrastructure to support both the university's process and teaching," says Attipa Julpisit, director of Bangkok University's computer centre.

Keeping up

As young people are generally at the forefront of computer usage, universities are catching up by using some of the latest technology. However, as the technology evolves, it is changing the nature of teaching itself. As a 2006 Frost & Sullivan study notes: "Fast-changing technology trends such as the evolution of IP telephony and the growing ubiquity of high-speed broadband services [wireless and wired] are re-defining the way educational institutions function."

Institutions like the National University of Singapore (NUS) are taking steps to ensure that none of their students fall through the cracks. NUS has had "PC clusters" for more than a decade-computer stations where students can use the campus machines to access the internet or to do assignments. The clusters have been renewed and added to over the years, and the number of computers in the PC clusters now number "in the thousands", says Huang Ee Choon, deputy director of the NUS computer centre, to serve a student body of about 20,000.

In addition, NUS extends a "laptop ownership scheme" for its students. The university has made special arrangement with suppliers to provide its students with laptops at preferential prices and the machines are equipped with extra features. The students are also offered interest-free loans to buy their laptops, payable after they graduate.

Having piled on the hardware, the institutions are finding new ways to leverage on the mobile devices. "IT needs to support mobile computing and unified communications for both teaching pedagogy and office work," notes Low Kin Kiong, director of IT services at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

Fundamental to this is increasing the digitisation of learning and research content. "Lots of library content is digitised, and most lectures are recorded," says Huang from NUS, "so students can review their lectures." Course notes and other materials are also available online through the university virtual private network (VPN). Other research resources are also available over the VPN, among them academic journals, magazines, databases, reports from Gartner and articles from the Harvard Business Review.

Building connections

However, as Frost & Sullivan's study observes, this is just a starting point. "Application areas such as internet usage on school/college campuses for instruction/research, access to class information, email, and training are reaching saturation," it says, "with the focus slowly shifting towards areas such as wireless technology and network services that enable access to information without boundaries."

Wireless technology and the trend towards pervasive connectivity is something NUS has been enthusiastic about, pushing towards seamless access to online resources, anywhere and anytime on the campus. The entire NUS campus, like NTU's, is wireless enabled. NUS's 1,300 wireless access points will soon grow significantly, as the halls of residence all go wireless by year-end.

And the changes wrought by IT are not confined to campus.

"There is a trend for universities to offer blended pedagogy (that is, face-to-face and online teaching)," says Low, "and more joint education and research programmes with other universities, where students may take semesters in different universities."

Besides the internet and dedicated links, a recently developed network by universities to foster collaboration in academic researches, Internet 2, supports high speed sharing of information. These connections support online collaborative activities with other universities, research organisations and global industry partners.

Web 2.0 is also contributing to the learning environment, supporting blogs for modules, chatting and podcasts.

Biggest headache

Such a wonderful, wireless world of learning does come with its challenges. Huang cites the effective management of a large quantity of information as a headache. Storage of different types of content, in various media is required, and the multifarious resources have to be easily accessible, so effective search mechanisms are also required. For Low from NTU, the challenges are twofold. "IT has to keep up with the changing landscape of the education industry," he says. "IT also has to move beyond transactional or operational applications to address the information needs of higher management, such as how the university is doing in its KPIs [key performance indicators] and governance." They must implement flexible design in information systems, and better integrate multiple application databases using data warehouse and BI tools.

However, he points out that commercial off-the-shelf enterprise resource planning (ERP) packages are not offering sufficient flexibility,

features and agility to meet the changing landscapes of the education industry. "There is no single suite solution from any ERP vendor to meet the industry's needs. ERP solutions will require extensive and costly customisation." Therefore, universities must address the integration of multiple applications, both commercial and custom-built, to suit their particular requirements.

Intellectual property

For Attipa, Thai IT laws are a concern, along with questions about digital rights. Legal issues are also a concern for NUS, which believes that campus life is richer for unrestricted internet access.

"We believe learning and research need to be totally open. We want to create an environment that encourages information flow and collaboration," explains Huang. "We have a totally open environment, gaining access is relatively simple, and we don't have any website restrictions, besides what the MDA [Media Development Authority in Singapore] blocks."

However, he acknowledges that an open, highly accessible environment that promotes collaboration can also create problems like privacy, copyright and security. "We're very, very strict about respecting IP and copyright. Our approach is not to restrict, but everybody has to be well-educated about the code of conduct. We have acceptable usage policies and regular education sessions," says Huang.

So does the NUS have problems with students using the university internet access to say, download illegal music?

Huang declines to say if there have been cases, but points out that such activity can be traced. And measures can be imposed in areas where security is key. He points out that the university has "critical, sensitive resources" available electronically. Such resources are classified by sensitivity, and protected with additional security measures. He notes that this differs radically from the traditional approach to security adopted by corporations, where the idea is to secure the entire environment. "We do a broad general security, but internal segments are secured according to risks. Different segments may have various secure IDs."

Despite the legal and technological hurdles, Huang is certain of one thing. "IT's role in education is at the point of no return. It can only accelerate."

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