What does HE provide exactly?

A few people (e.g. weblogg-ed) have blogged about the following demo of Zoho Notebook (which isn’t released yet)

It does look very good and one can immediately see all sorts of possibilities for it in education, with students sharing and collaborating on content.

What it made me think was, as I posted a few days ago, increasingly I wonder why we bother to develop technologies in higher education. None of the stuff we develop is ever as agile, cool, usable or useful as this wealth of free commercial software out there now. Imagine you were employed to find the technology that would have the most significant impact on education in the next 5 to 10 years. Would you seriously look at what universities were doing to find the answer?

Partly this is cultural – the values that higher education holds dear are things like rigour, transparency and thoroughness. These are reflected in the software approaches it adopts with very sound stakeholder consultation, deeply studious problem analysis, measured and precise software specification, user testing, etc. By which time the product is irrelevant.

The pace of change is worrying too, my colleague Tony Hirst (who pointed me at this video) says he finds something every weekend that he thinks he could use in a course, and I don’t doubt him. So even as it stands I want to say to developers ‘can we just freeze everything for two years so we can catch up and start using this stuff?’

But the problem for higher education is even worse when you consider the wealth of content out there. Perhaps this is the sort of admission a professor shouldn’t make, but I read more (and get more from) blogs now than I do from learned journals. And I would advise students to do the same. Add in podcasts, YouTube, Slideshare, open educational resources and the idea that the university or educator is the provider of the content looks decidedly shakey.

In essence we are all autodidacts now, but rather than being the oddball dilettante of Sartre’s Nausea, autodidacts are now able to take any subject to a fine level of detail while maintaining a social life. Even worse, we are all autotechsupport now as well.

So, with the net providing the content and the technology I am reminded of the quote in Schindlers List when Itzhak Stern says to Schindler "Let me understand. They put up all the money. I do all the work. What, if you don’t mind my asking, would you do?" I think increasingly this is a question that students will ask of HE, but more importantly which it should ask of itself.

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