Technology and the University Environment

Seeing our medical students graduate earlier this week, and reading a Tweet later that evening from a University advertising a one year online Masters, got me thinking again of something which has been a lot on my mind lately, namely what the role and benefits of technology are in the University environment. Mirroring the changes to our daily life caused by the advent and astonishing growth and proliferation of first computers and then personal electronic devices, along with the associated internet and electronically interactive features they carry, these computer related and technology led developments have in many way enhanced the way we do business in the University environment. Beyond most of our daily communication being performed using email and other means of internet communication (such as this blog!), there is now a proliferation of purely online courses available at most Universities, and discussion of the benefits and need to embrace potential current and future developments such as flipped classrooms and massive open online courses (MOOCs) occupies a significant portion of our daily debate in University education management discussions.

There are obvious benefits to all of these developments, for example University learning can be extended to a greater number of students, a paperless environment is both cost-effective and more environmental friendly, and there is enhanced capacity to have uniformity and quality assurance of teaching material – these ‘online’ educational developments would ‘banish’ the day of the eccentric Professor giving a rambling lecture on on topic no-one in lecture room could understand, and on a topic that was not completely relevant to the core learning requirements of the course that the lecture was being given for.

But in this concept and example of ‘banishing’ the rambling eccentric Professor lies the paradox and inherent concern raised from this future utopian electronic, online environment for Universities in the future, that forcibly struck me when I was watching the students at their graduation ceremony, and in particular the smiles on the faces of each of them, as they got their degrees and diplomas, and the vocal jubilation of the parents when they children were walking accross the stage – that what University environments are also for is developing the human dynamic in both students and in those prileged to work with them as lecturers and teachers. I don’t believe the memories of those students walking accross the stage on Thursday in a few years time will be of the time spent in their rooms staring at their lecture notes or electronic lectures on their laptop. Surely these times were crucially important for them to develop their technical knowledge as required by the course they registered for. But, what they will remember, and perhaps as important for their own personal development, will be the memories of the physical time spent on the campus of the University they went to – sitting around on the grass in summer commiserating with each other on how hard it was to understand that eccentric Professor in the lecture that just happened, the time their student group sat together and went through their notes together to pass exams, the role model clinical doctor who inspired them with his or her bedside lecture on the causes of lung cancer, and perhaps more importantly, the effect of the cancer on the patient and how this also needed to be thought of and managed (such great teachers would surely become future positive role models for them), and all the fun and social times one has as a student during ones years physically on campus – jumping into the campus fountain during Freshers week, cheering on the medical student rugby team on inter-varsity sport day, or heck, maybe even that first cup of coffee in the medical school cafeteria with the person that would eventually become their life partner.

So perhaps like in every component of life and society, balance is everything, and while as Universities we need to embrace and use technological development to enhance our teaching and learning practice, we also need to perhaps remember the human development side which has the potential to occur on campus in our students, and make sure we maintain a University environment where not only students develop the technical skills which will be vital for their future success in their chosen career, but also an environment where personal and social skills are developed either formally or informally, with memories created of a unique period of their life that will serve them well in the challenges they face in their future workplace and social milieu, which will almost certainly not be only technically related.


About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Deputy Dean (Research), Faculty of Science and Health, University of Essex, Colchester, United Kingdom View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

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