By Catherine Armstong
In the last decade or so, the day-to-day lives of most people working in Higher Education the world over have changed dramatically simply because of technological advances. No longer are computers the working tools of a few scientists, but instead contribute immensely to the lives of all academics whether they are undertaking teaching, research or administration tasks. This article will explore how the changes in technology have impacted academics’ work in these three areas.
Preparing for class can now be done from the comfort of one’s own office; visits to libraries are no longer required unless the subject is completely new. For example, to produce a bibliography for students, all the information required is available on library or university websites. There is information online that is valuable for teaching in almost every subject. In history, my own field, there are many fascinating primary source collections that can be used in the classroom such as the modern history sourcebook:http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/modsbook.htmlStudents can then access these online, thus preventing the wastage of paper by printing the document out many times.
Although the sciences have always used the latest equipment, data collection and analysis has been revolutionised in many scientific fields. Patrick Williams, who is doing a PhD in fluid mechanics, says that ‘my research is purely experimental using some very high-tech instruments, but after the data has been collected it is analysed using a high speed PC. Without the data capture facility or the analysis PC, my research would be severely limited’. Even in the arts and social sciences, databases and spreadsheets collating information have allowed for the quicker analysis and sharing of data than ever before.
One potential benefit of digital technology in the arts is that scholars in some fields rarely find the need to visit a library now. Steve Hindle, professor of history, says ‘technology has helped a lot with the provision of…full texts of early printed books. I now never need to visit the British Library since its collection is effectively on my desktop; and I rarely have to make exploratory trips to record offices since I know in advance from online catalogues what is there’. Fragile items can be safely deposited in library vaults without being handled by scholars who are gradually destroying them. However, it is a shame that many historians no longer visit libraries and archives to do research, and instead spend increasingly more time at their computers. The joy of hands-on research in the field can never be replaced by the touch-of-a-button access provided by our digital age.
Once the research stage is complete, and the time has come to write up, technology helps tremendously. Imagine trying to construct even a short report, article or essay without a computer, using merely a typewriter or even a pen and paper. Patrick Tomlin describes the process of asking peers to read and comment on a piece of his writing in his article in the Guardian: http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/comment/story/0,,2058387,00.html. ‘Once I received their comments, would a new draft have been typed from the start, rather than changes inserted into the document? Clearly, people got by - and produced some wonderful work - in the pre-digital age, but sharing and revising it must have been far more laborious’. I am currently constructing an index for a 90,000-word monograph. This task is onerous enough, but how much more so would it have been without a Word programme that allows the insertion of material at will, or a control-f ‘find’ function that allows me to trace every instance of a particular name or phrase?
Most of us spend at least half-an-hour a day answering our emails and this is considered normal. Email allows us to communicate with contacts across the world cheaply and easily, at our leisure. We can send them pieces of work such as proposals or essays to look at, as well as images such as posters promoting events. As Patrick Tomlin notes ‘I genuinely struggle sometimes to imagine how people managed without the internet’. The world has reached that point extremely quickly, in less than two decades. And indeed, people do not manage without their email very well: we have all experienced the feeling of confusion and lack of direction when our email systems suddenly ‘go down’. The sheer volume of email received can be daunting, augmented by the ever-present stream of spam emails that no system seems to be able to prevent.
Of course, it is important to acknowledge that the technological benefits have not been universal. As Patrick Tomlin agrees, the information overload on the internet can prove a distraction rather than an inspiration. Scholars in all fields now find themselves constantly behind their desks, staring at a computer screen, suffering the RSI, the headaches that once were exclusive to computer scientists. However, it would be churlish to claim that the benefits brought by technology have not outweighed these negatives. And indeed, one of these benefits is an ability to keep up with the academic job market at the click of the mouse on websites such as this one!
Powerpoint presentations have now largely superseded fuzzy and expensive overhead projections and fiddly slides as the method of choice for lecturers to convey visual information. These presentations can encourage creative display of material, combining text and image, and also can be made available to students outside the lecture hall if desired. However the disadvantage to this lecturers feel is that there is no incentive for students to attend if the Powerpoint can be viewed afterwards.
Managing student records is also much more straightforward; databases accessible by all lecturers and administrative staff can monitor the progress of wayward or struggling students, allowing problems to be flagged much more discreetly and efficiently. Word or Excel records of achievements for students under an individual academic’s supervision are fed into larger databases that monitor a student’s progress in every module he or she takes.
Many universities are now tentatively investigating the option of running online modules and degrees. The advantage to this is that students can undertake the course who would not normally be incorporated into the student body, such as those living a distance from the university or those with particular disabilities. P2P messaging services, blogs, podcasts, video conferencing, downloadable powerpoints and other online resources mean that distance learning via the web no longer leaves the student in isolation.