Reading ‘The Edgeless University’ and ‘HE in a Web 2.0 World’ reports

I have been asked to present the recent Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World report to the University’s next Teaching and Learning Committee. The report came out shortly before, and is referenced by, The Edgeless University. Why Higher Education Must Embrace Technology, which was launched by David Lammy MP at the end of June. I’ve been going through both reports, pulling out significant quotes and annotating them. Here are my notes. It is not a comprehensive nor formal review of the reports, nor a statement from the University of Lincoln. Just personal reflections which I will take to my colleagues for discussion. I don’t whole-heartedly agree with every statement made in both reports or even those quoted here, but I do take government promoted reports, and the funding that accompanies them, seriously.

I include quotes from David Lammy’s speech, as it can be read as a formal statement from government on the recommendations of the ‘Edgeless’ report and a commentary on future funding priorities.

If you’ve not yet read the reports, my notes might provide a useful summary, albeit from the bias of someone charged with supporting the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning.  I am also an advocate of Open Access and Open Education on which the Edgeless report has a lot to say. Methodologically, the writing of both reports combined both current literature reviews and interviews across the sector and as I write, they are the most current documents of their kind that I am aware of.

If you have commented on either of these reports on your own blog or have something to say about the excerpts I include here, please do leave a comment and let me (and others) know.  Thanks.

The Reports and My Commentary

The economic relationship between the teacher and student

Fundamental to the Edgeless report is the recognition of the current worldwide economic problems. My reading of it is entirely within this frame of reference. It begins with:

…universities find themselves in a fragile state. The huge public investment most of the sector relies on is insecure. Universities are being asked to do more for less, from meeting the needs of a larger and more diverse student population to withstanding increased competition. Current ways of working are unsustainable. We are entering a period of critical change in which UK institutions will need to adapt to survive. [p.7]

And ends with:

The catalyst for change is the economic downturn, which has given a new impetus to finding innovative ways to adapt. Phyllis Grummon of the Society for College and University Planning suggests that we are in a ‘neutral zone’ – a time of maximum uncertainty and time for creative possibility between the ending of the way things have been and the beginning of the way they will be.

In building the e-infrastructure for higher education we should not just build around the needs of institutions as they exist already. To pursue the possibilities of the ‘Edgeless University’, technology will have to be taken more seriously as a strategic asset. Technology is a driver for change. But we should harness it as a solution, a tool, for the way we want universities to support learning and research in the future. [p.63]

It’s interesting to read this conclusion alongside the following conclusion from the HE in Web2 report:

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. [p.9]

Both reports acknowledge that we are in a significant period of change that requires HEIs to not just adapt but assertively react to both economic circumstances and to changing student behaviours and expectations. David Lammy reiterates this in his speech:

There is only a certain amount that we can achieve through the conventional higher education models. If we want to continue and accelerate the democratisation of higher education, it’s time for another revolution in the idea of a university.

It’s time to step up to the challenge of using technology to make what universities can offer available to the broad mass of people.

In the Edgeless report, technology is understood as being both the driver for change and the response to change. If HEIs do not recognise this, the Edgeless report warns that they may suffer the same fate as that of the music industry:

Technology undermined certain business models that sustained the music industry, but the threat was not to music itself, only to the way that current business models worked. New ways of creating and finding music had been made possible.

It is no use lamenting the golden age of universities (or record companies). The goals of the two ‘industries’ remain the same, but they must refocus on how to achieve them. Society’s aspirations for the sector remain the same. The challenge for institutions is to find the way to do it. [p.11]

We are meant to read this as:

Technology undermined certain business models that sustained Higher Education, but the threat was not to education itself, only to the way that current business models worked. New ways of research, teaching and learning had been made possible.

Advocating change within the sector requires work at the grassroots, re-defining the status and role of the teacher. Both reports provide commentary on this. The Edgeless report states that both additional training and incentives are required in order to bring about change among the attitudes and skills of teaching staff, especially

…in newer, teaching-based institutions where student experience and designing provision around student need has a higher priority than at more research-led or elite institutions … Collaborative learning tools, voting machines, interactive games and online support cannot just be dumped into classroom settings to immediate beneficial effect. Time, effort and support are needed to make them effective. While technology opens up many new possibilities, matching these possibilities with a vision for teaching and learning is the real challenge. Being able to develop new ways of teaching depends on the capacity to experiment. That requires resources, incentives and time, which are often not available. [p.57-8]

The report recommends that teaching is placed

on a similar footing to research in terms of career progression and funding incentives would go some of the way to creating the conditions and space for innovation in teaching styles. [p.60]

Both reports recognise the need for continued and increasing efforts to be made in developing both staff and learner skills. This is more explicitly expressed in the HE in Web2 report and developed into a comprehensive set of recommendations.

In a way, the HE in Web2 report goes further than just recommending change in the position and practices of teaching staff. It shifts the responsibility to both teacher and learner by asserting that students themselves have an important role to play in the development of approaches to teaching and learning.

The single issue here is the role of the tutor. Tutors are central to development of approaches to learning and teaching in higher education. They have much to keep up with, their subject for example, and developments in their craft – learning and teaching or pedagogy. To practise effectively, they have also to stay attuned to the disposition of their students. This is being changed demonstrably by the nature of the experience of growing up in a digital world. The time would seem to be right seriously and systematically to begin the process of renegotiating the relationship between tutor and student to bring about a situation where each recognises and values the other’s expertise and capability and works together to capitalise on it. This implies drawing students into the development of approaches to teaching and learning. [p.9]

At times, we might wonder if the methodology of the reports is biased towards focussing on the minority of students who are already advanced users of technology. Anecdotal evidence from the classroom, suggests that the average student is less adept at the use of online tools that could enhance their research and learning. However, last year’s Ipsos MORI Great Expectations report identified [p.3-4] that the tech-literate ‘boost’ group of students could be understood as a fair indicator of where the majority cohort group were heading, “predicting takeup and problems for the future mainstream.”

This reminds me of another recommendation in the Edgeless report which states:

Engage with the geeks: The JISC Developer Happiness Days was a good example of how higher education can connect with the energy of those developing educational and social software. There is a real opportunity to engage with the energy of those working in ‘social technology’ to develop new ideas and resources. Individual institutions could run events and become engaged with communities of developers. [p.61]

My point here is that ‘geeks’, whether they are among the minority of students or are developers and educational technologists working in and with HEIs, can provide an indication (an ‘advanced warning’) of future student expectations.

If we do acknowledge, as the HE in Web2 report does, that students themselves bring “expertise and capability” with them to the teacher/learner relationship, the traditional hierarchy of learned and learner is potentially disrupted and so might be the expectations of students, too. The value placed on teaching is put under greater scrutiny, as students scaffold staff struggling to keep up with new pedagogical opportunities brought on through technology.

The pedagogic relationship is not the only aspect of change between the teacher and learner. The Edgeless report states that economics will also continue to effect change in this relationship.

While the HE in Web2 report advocates students taking on the role of co-producer in the development of teaching and learning, the Edgeless report suggests that with state funding likely to fall by 5% before 2011, a rise in tuition fees becomes more likely. It is estimated that tuition fees of £5000, would leave most graduates nearly £28,000 in debt by the end of their three year degree. The Edgeless report suggest that this situation would further emphasise the position of the student as a consumer (and in most cases, debtor), placing the ‘student experience’ under greater scrutiny to ensure that the consumer receives value for money:

…a recent study by UK Universities suggests that a rise from £3,000 to £5,000 in tuition fees would not deter students – but it is likely to hone students’ desire to get a good return from the higher education they are paying for… UK and EU students – who were at that time paying only £1,000 or so per year – were fairly positive. But 30 per cent of overseas students – who were paying many times more – were dissatisfied with the value for money of their course. [p. 21, quoting a Higher Education Policy Institute survey]

And who would have thought that

…further education finance is one of the three topics that respondents said they would like to learn more about at school. [p.21]

It is worth noting that a 5% fall in HEI funding is seen as conservative by some. A recent Times Higher article refers to contingency plans for 20% cuts across Whitehall, where nearly a fifth of universities would be at risk of closure. Almost certainly, the recession has still to hit the public sector.

Towards an Open Relationship between HEIs and Learners

David Lammy’s “revolution in the idea of the university”, refers to the “democratisation of higher education” and its availability “to the broad mass of people.” He is referring to the thread that runs throughout the Edgeless report [p. 8, 9, 10, 11, 25, 26, 29, 30, 31, 35, 43, 45, 46, 47, 53, 54, 55, 61, 62, 63] about the public value and potential societal impact of ‘openness’; that is, Open Standards in technology, more flexible forms of Access Management (i.e. how and what happens when you login into the university network), Open Access to research and Open Educational Resources. The HE in Web2 report also recognises ‘open source materials and online universities’ as an ongoing driver to change. [p. 8, 37]

We have noted the growth in open content – including the substantial amount that is made available by the most prestigious universities in the world – and predictions of the rise of a limited number of international online purveyors of HE that will come to dominate the global mass market for HE. In that they will influence the choices made by students, both home and overseas, such developments certainly stand to impact the UK HE system. This, in our view, is an additional impetus for considering and, where appropriate, introducing changes to ensure a learning experience for students that continues to be stimulating, challenging and relevant. [p.40]

Lammy reiterates that

the era of top down organisation is over; that the barriers to participation are coming down, and that decision-making by cabal has given way to that of open source.

The term ‘open source’ seems to be used here and in the HE in Web2 report to refer to openness in general rather than specifically open source software. Lammy refers to throwing “open the gates of the Academy and take what’s been confined there out into the world.”  It is also no coincidence that the Open University is being positioned as a “national resource” and part of a Task Force to advise on the provision of a £20m Open Learning Innovation Fund. This fund is intended to build on the HEA/JISC’s Open Educational Resources Programme, of which we are beneficiaries.

This is not the first time that public money has been invested in promoting and supporting open access to education. A three-year, £14m ‘Repositories and Preservation Programme’ was completed by JISC in March this year, which largely focused on establishing a national infrastructure of open access repositories and related services, of which the University of Lincoln were beneficiaries, too. Funding in this area continues.

As noted above, the Edgeless report has much to say about open access to research and learning materials. It argues that as we are increasingly and ubiquitously connected to the Internet, people will correspondingly expect access to information for free.

Such connectedness makes it easier to utilise the collective imagination of more people in the development of an idea, service or product. There are obvious implications for education. Universities were once the primary portal for anyone wishing to pursue a subject in any depth or to engage in collective research endeavours. Now, scholarly journals can be a Google search away, rather than a 20-mile journey and requiring membership of an academic library.  It seems odd to think that, until very recently, the physical limitations of storing information and helping people access it were real problems. They have melted away. Information management deals with the consequences of the ubiquity of information, of it being readily available, not its inaccessibility. Students can and increasingly do look to new spaces like Google to access, sort and organise information… When services such as Google Books and Google Scholar are coupled with the vast array of audio, visual and secondary sources available online, the traditional idea of the library stacks seems quaint. [p.26-7]

It quotes a previous report on collaborative research which notes that “the landscape of research is being redrawn”…

We used to expect new ideas to come from the universities and research laboratories of major companies in the US and Europe. Technology flowed from this innovative core to the technologically dependent periphery. No more. The core and periphery are being scrambled up. [p. 30]

This all leads to one of the main points of the Edgeless report which argues that

Knowledge is no longer restricted within the boundaries of universities and higher education facilities. These institutions no longer have a monopoly on where good ideas come from, nor of how information and knowledge is used. They cannot control how the knowledge they help to create is used and where it is accessed. [p. 31]

But what is the business model for institutions destined to receive less public funding and required to charge students more for enrollment? Where does the value of HEIs lie, when all ‘knowledge capital’, including the research, teaching and learning output produced by universities, is open and freely available, as the government are advocating through policy and funding streams? The Edgeless report recognises this issue:

Like any industry that deals with digitisable content, higher education is facing the challenge of reconciling the push towards openness with the current business models designed for different eras of information distribution.

While strongly advocating the pursuit of openness, the report argues that the role of the university is shifting from being sole providers of higher learning to becoming partners in the creation and validation of knowledge and reputation. Universities are ‘resource providers’, with expertise which can ‘validate learning’.

Their reputations, networks and spaces are a driving force for research and collaboration… Their value is their institutional capital – the spaces they create for learning, the validation they provide for learning and research, and the returns people get from it… Universities have to rediscover their value to knowledgeseekers in a world where information is ubiquitous. Their presence across these networks of learning and research remains vital and influential. [p. 33-34]

The HE in Web2 report concludes along similar lines, emphasising the role of universities in developing students’ skills in an environment where information is ubiquitous and free but ‘digital literacy’ is lacking.

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.

Both reports recognise the challenges that are faced by HEIs in a Web 2 world where information flows freely. Students still value face-to-face contact with staff and a sense of belonging to the institution yet less than half of students are now residential, full-time and pre-employment:

Two out of five higher education students are currently studying part-time; 59 per cent are mature and almost 15 per cent come from overseas and there is every indication that the student population will continue to grow and change. [Edgeless p. 18]

The HE in Web 2 report notes that for these students,

e-Learning incorporating Web 2.0 offers the sense of being a contributing member of a learning community, which is one of the hallmarks of higher education. For learners unable to participate in an actual community for some, or even all, of the time – notably part-time, distance and, increasingly, work-based – Web 2.0 may be a reasonable proxy.

The Learning Landscape: A few final thoughts

Reading the reports, we might think that the future learning landscape is an open commons in which learners optionally pay to become students and enjoy the benefits of institutional affiliation and accreditation. It’s suggested that the distinction between teaching and training is highly fluid, as is the distinction between teacher and student, with an emphasis on collaboration and the co-production of knowledge. Across this landscape, traditional hierarchies based around institutional experience and the transmission of knowledge between the learned and learner, are being replaced with a flatter, more explicitly economic relationship based on the obligations of a service provider to a consumer.

Written in the context of funding and the economy, the Edgeless report is, I think, the more blunt of the two and the more radical. It reads like a third-party think-tank report (which it is) written from outside the intimate workings of the education sector. I think this is its strength. To me, it provides a strong warning to the sector, rarely providing answers of equal weight to the questions it raises. At one point, the report provides no answers:

Informal learning is growing in popularity and significance, and attracting the attention of politicians, but there are problems in reconciling informal learning with formal frameworks, and managing the relationship between institutions of higher education and the kinds of learning that happen outside them. We have yet to find a model for collating learning from many different sources. Funding and the structure of learning in formal higher education tend to militate against this. [p. 53-4]

It is, if taken seriously, a difficult document to reconcile from within an HEI. It is a document which details possible doom for the establishment (cf. the music industry), but is written by and for optimists who recognise the potential of this ‘neutral zone’ we are currently in.

By contrast, the HE in Web 2 report, while sharing many of the same conclusions as the Edgeless report, is clearly written from within the sector. Its tone and structure are quite different and it provides clearly defined recommendations for action. In most respects, it is no less radical than the Edgeless report, recognising the substantial upheaval required to ensure that universities remain relevant to future learners by considering the ‘temper of the times’.  Both documents are well referenced but given their similar dates of publication, share remarkably few of the same interviewees and references, which can be seen as reassuring in that both reports arrive at a similar place; that is, a landscape that is more open and diverse, focused on developing a virtual infrastructure that supports and helps develop the skills of both teacher and student. The multi-faceted nature of the institution remains highly valued, as does the multifarious role of the teacher. However, the student’s role is recognised in a new form: a partnership of near equals yet one that, inevitably, comes at an economic cost.

8 Replies to “Reading ‘The Edgeless University’ and ‘HE in a Web 2.0 World’ reports”

  1. You don’t often see ‘timely’ and ‘journal’ in the same sentence!

    Given the time it took me to bring the two reports together, I am inclined to work it into something for publication. Thanks for the encouragement.

  2. My response is at

    I don’t have any fundamental disagreements in principle (well, just a few) but I believe lessons that can be learned from the past. Much of the current documentation says the same as was being said over a decade ago. If we take anything forward from this current drive for extending the boundaries of educational technology, and burdening it with ever more ambitious expectations, then it must be attention to the needs of those still at the analogue end of the digital continuum.

    I fully support the setting up of an Open Learning Innovation Fund but suspect it will attract the converted who are all too often unaware of the development needs of those yet to engage. Unless there is focus on the building of bridges between the users and the non-users, rather than yet more innovation, then the existing digital divide will continue to widen.


  3. Interesting piece Joss. But the question for me is where the student sits in all this. There is no doubt that technology has unleashed a flood of information much of which is free, much of which is not. But actually the information or the technology may not be the problem. The problem may be more that we’re human beings with real lives.

    I don’t want to play the absurd game of “I’ve had a weeks holiday and come back to 57,000 messages” here, but the fact is that making use of RSS feeds, microblogging services, and e-mails does rather swamp the user and I think ultimately, defeats the object of engaging with a discipline which is to make a critical contribution to it and ultimately to expand it.

    I’m beginning to think that one way HEIs might begin to overcome the digital divide that Sue refers to is to spend a great deal more time on helping students to focus on their strengths and ambitions, assisting them to develop personal maps of their own information domains, and to encourage them to adopt an open access philosophy around their own work while at the same time developing a critical attitude to their chosen discipline. In other words, to find and use technologies that work for them. (Yes, I do mean PDPs and e-portfolios, and it hasn’t escaped me that they’re another technology!) I do think, properly done, they might provide a sounder basis for the sort of informal learning that the Edgeless University report talks about.

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