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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Universities Without Edges? Virtual Learning and Research in the News

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Two contrasting stories about the use of virtual technologies for research and teaching have been hitting the headlines in the United Kingdom this week.

At Durham University, Dr. Patricia Easteal, a law lecturer at the University of Canberra in Australia, has accepted a "virtual sabbatical" in what is believed to be the first sort of fellowship of its kind. Dr. Easteal will conduct her five months of research and teaching with staff and students at Durham, using online tools such as Skype, YouTube, blogs and wikis. She plans to teach her students via Second Life. Unfortunately, for all the freedom of cyberspace, there is no overcoming one feature of real-life geography: the 11 hour time difference between Australia and the UK means that some of her lectures and contributions will have to be pre-recorded.

One acerbic commentator on the Times Higher Education is less than impressed, though, complaining that this may just be a "grandiloquent claim" about a "virtual fellow," when academics have long been used to exchanging knowledge internationally. At Durham, Dr. Westmarland, the lecturer in criminal justice who devised the project, has acknowledged that there may be technical hitches, and that this is a test case for how effective virtual tools are for collaboration at this level.

However, Demos, the UK government think-tank, might well have applauded their efforts. In a recent report entitled The Edgeless University: Why Higher Education Must Embrace Technology, the authors find that whilst social networking and the mobile internet are commonplace among students, such tools have not yet made many inroads into the university classroom. The report argues that with their expertise universities ought to be well placed to filter "the noise of information and knowledge" that envelops students, and so should be eager "to capitalise on the connections and relationships made possible by the new information technologies." Whilst acknowledging that individual academics (such as, perhaps, those mentioned earlier) have been trying to break new ground, investment in online learning and research technologies now needs to be more strategic and sustained.

A new task force set up by the British Government, chaired by Dame Lynne Brindley, the chief executive of the British Library, aims to help with this. Backed by a new Open Learning Innovation Fund of up to £10 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the group aims to enable universities "to develop greater expertise in online teaching and create centres of excellence for the delivery of online learning."

What do readers here think? Have universities been a bit slow off the mark in making use of the internet for networking? Or should we be a bit sceptical about the effectiveness of things like the "virtual sabbatical"?

[Note: This is a cross-post from the Graduate Junction Blog]

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Posted by Alistair at 7:05 pm


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