Higher Education in a Web

Supported by the principal bodies and agencies in UK post-compulsory education, the Committee was set up in
February 2008 to conduct an independent inquiry into the strategic and policy implications for higher education
of the experience and expectations of learners in the light of their increasing use of the newest technologies.
Essentially, these are Web 2.0 or Social Web technologies, technologies that enable communication, collaboration,
participation and sharing.

As we began our work, the online lifestyle of young people going into higher education was inescapable, and
those working in it had sensed a clear change in their students’ pre-entry experience. The time was ripe for an
informed, impartial assessment of this and what it might herald for higher education policy and strategy. This
was our remit. Since they represent the future, we took young learners as our baseline. We have, however, been
concerned with learners of all ages.
We reviewed the findings of completed and, where they were available, ongoing studies related to our remit; took
oral evidence from a range of practising academics and researchers; and commissioned briefings and studies,
including one substantial piece of work on current and developing international practice in the use of Web 2.0 in
higher education. We met six times in full session and held one event dedicated to hearing evidence.
We structured our Inquiry into a consideration of the prior experience of higher education learners, their
expectations, and international practice in the use of Web 2.0 in higher education. From our findings in these
three areas, we identified a number of critical issues, the exploration of which then informed our conclusions and

Web 2.0 use in higher education now
We looked at the nature and extent of current deployment of Web 2.0 technologies in higher education and sought,
in the process, to gauge the UK’s position relative to that of other countries. Here we found that institutions of
higher education in the UK are presently as advanced as any internationally in their developing adoption of Web
2.0, and that the UK is generally well served at present in the infrastructure – specifically broadband width – that
is necessary to support Web 2.0 technologies. Other key findings were:
„.Web 2.0 technologies are being deployed across a broad spectrum of university activities and in similar ways in
the UK and overseas
„.Deployment is in no way systematic and the drive is principally bottom up, coming from the professional
interest and enthusiasm of individual members of staff
„.In learning and teaching, usage is patchy but a considerable working base exists, as it does in other areas of
university business, including administration, student support and advertising and marketing
„.On the basis of the strength and reach of its broadband infrastructure at least, the UK is presently well placed
to be at the forefront of future development
„.Advice and guidance is available to institutions, but there is no blueprint for implementation of Web 2.0
technologies, and each is currently deciding its own path.


Web 2.0, the Social Web, has had a profound effect on behaviours, particularly those of young people whose
medium and metier it is. They inhabit it with ease and it has led them 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 world they encounter in higher education has been constructed on a wholly different set of norms.
Characterised broadly, it is hierarchical, substantially introvert, guarded, careful, precise and measured. The two
worlds are currently co-existing, with present-day students effectively occupying a position on the cusp of change.
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. It is, however, unlikely to be sustainable in the long term. 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 will also come from
policy imperatives in relation to skills development, specifically development of employability skills. These are
backed by employer demands and include a range of ‘soft skills’ such as networking, teamwork, collaboration and
self-direction, which are among those fostered by students’ engagement with Social Web technologies.
Higher education has a key role in helping students refine, extend and articulate the diverse range of skills they
have developed through their experience of Web 2.0 technologies. It not only can, but should, fulfil this role, and
it should do so through a partnership with students to develop approaches to learning and teaching. This does
not necessarily mean wholesale incorporation of ICT into teaching and learning. Rather it means adapting to
and capitalising on evolving and intensifying behaviours that are being shaped by the experience of the newest
technologies. In practice it means 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. The means to these ends should be the best tools for the job, whatever they may
be. The role of institutions of higher education is to enable informed choice in the matter of those tools, and to
support them and their effective deployment.

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