The seeds of many initiatives present in institutions today were sown in 1998 when Dearing published his report into higher education, which was to have wide ranging ramifications across the higher education sector for the following decade. It included reference to ‘systems for teaching and administration’, the ability to ‘teach across continents’ and we also saw the emergence of ideas that lead to the Open Educational Resources programme. Chapter 13 of the report deals solely with C&IT (Communication and Information Technology). In many ways, with regard to C&IT, Dearing showed great foresight and vision for the affordances that technology could bring to the sector.
Following his comments in the report and a discussion around the fundamental importance of technology in institutions Dearing made recommendation 42:
We recommend that all higher education institutions should develop managers who combine a deep understanding of Communications and Information Technology with senior management experience.
However, at the time publishing the report C&IT was seen as complex and difficult to comprehend on an institutional scale by some, and as the preserve of the specialist by others. Dearing wanted C&IT to be high on the institutional agenda and recommended the central strategies which are now ubiquitous in the sector. The emergence of e-learning and e-research strategies followed a few years later.
At the time of publication the technology that Dearing was mostly referring to included large complex networking systems, the emergent virtual learning environments (VLEs) and hardware that was bulky, expensive and required a lot of support. Now, the network is well supported and has arguably disappeared into the background; not unlike the road network, we don’t need to know how to build and maintain a road to be able to drive from A to B. VLEs and other learning and teaching packages are maintainable at a distance, allowing academics to produce and edit their own content, whilst hardware is smaller, cheaper and (depending on your green credentials) can be swapped for new if it becomes faulty.
In addition to the growth in institutional technology (such as VLEs) and the changing hardware, the last five years have also seen the influences of ‘web 2.0’ applications. These applications have raised the game in terms of the usability of products, and had an impact on how and where we access resources. It is no longer the preserve of the few to instantly publish material to the web, communicate by voice and video across networks, or build systems for collaboration in teaching and research. Now almost anyone in an institution can do this and using a variety of devices, not just a PC.
At a recent JISC conference showcasing new products emerging from technology projects, Gwen Van Der Veldon gave a keynote about what she expects as a senior manager in an institution. This included the following two quotes which demonstrate a widely held attitude:
“Don’t come to me with new cool technologies; come to me with solutions to institutional problems.”
“If whatever you’re building needs a manual then it’s of no use to me. I need solutions that can be picked up and used with as little learning as possible.”
Visiting institutions for the Building Capacity Programme discussions with members of senior management may not have demonstrated ‘deep understanding of Communications and Information Technology’; they have however demonstrated a profound understanding of institutional issues, the context of higher education in wider socio-economic realities and creativity in addressing these issues. Mostly senior managers have not talked about technology, they have talked about the advantages of technology and how they can meet needs. Reflecting on Dearing’s vision for the ‘Type 42 manager’ it is clear that in the context of the times Dearing was right in his recommendation, but somewhere between then and now we either lost the need for them, or we developed a different kind of senior manager who understands that technology in and of itself is essential not central in an institution.
This post-digital senior manager recognises that with technology we can enhance a wide range of practices across teaching, research and administration, and they understand that it is underpinning almost every process in an institution; but they also understand that the focus needs to be on solving problems and facilitating positive change rather than on finding uses for the latest tech to roll off the conveyor belt.