The past ten years has seen an unprecedented explosion of innovation in ICT, leading to a sometimes bewildering array of new technological options that can be harnessed to support higher education, in its managerial and administrative operations, in teaching and learning, and in research. It is beyond the scope of this paper to describe them all, but a few key recent technological developments are outlined below. A significant proportion of these developments have emerged as a consequence of the growing availability of high quality, stable broadband Internet connections. Indeed, perhaps the defining feature of the development of the Internet in recent time has been the rapid growth of Web 2.0 platforms. This growth is predominantly driven by assumptions that participants (not users) are able to be online, in a broadband environment, 24 hours a day. The problems associated with this for people living in countries or areas where such Internet access does not exist or is not affordable are significant.
Social Network Sites are web-based services that allow people to construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, define a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. Possibly the most well known of these sites are Facebook and MySpace, although many such sites exist. Some also focus on specific dimensions of social networking. For example, social bookmarking sites such as Del.icio.us allow people to save bookmarks to websites and tag them with keywords, generating community-driven, keyword-based classifications known as ‘folksonomies’. Likewise, photo-sharing websites such as Flickr allow people to upload, tag, browse, and annotate digital photographs, as well as participate in self-organizing topical groups. While social networking sites have massive potential for influencing the way in which we organize and find information and how we interact with people, it is important to note that the for-profit sector is selling itself as the provider of choice for these Web 2.0 collaboration capabilities, predominantly in an effort to create new platforms for funding consumers and selling advertising.
Blogging is remarkable for the speed with which it has grown as an online communication vehicle. blog is an abbreviated version of ‘weblog’, which is a term used to describe web sites that maintain an ongoing chronicle of information. A blog is a frequently updated, personal website featuring diary-type commentary and links to articles or other Web sites (and, in the case, of videoblogging, video). Given the personal perspectives presented on blogs, they often generate ongoing discourse and a strong sense of community. Blogs provide diverse, alternative sources of information for higher education, as well as providing tools that can be used by academics and students for a wide range of educational purposes.
Wikis enables documents to be written collaboratively, in a simple mark-up language using a web browser. A defining characteristic of wiki technology is the ease with which pages can be created and updated. This ease of interaction and operation makes a wiki an effective tool for mass collaborative authoring, the most famous example of which is Wikipedia, an online phenomenon that has played a massive role in challenging notions of what constitutes ‘expertise’ and about reliability of information. Wikis are already extensively used in many higher education programmes for educational purposes, and are one of the authoring tools being used to generate ‘open’ content (see below).
RSS (Real Simple Syndication) is a protocol that allows users to subscribe to online content by creating lists of preferred sources of information in a ‘reader’ or ‘aggregator’ that automatically retrieves content updates, saving users time and effort. RSS feeds can be very helpful in managing information and undertaking ongoing research.
Podcasting refers to any combination of hardware, software, and connectivity that permits automatic download of (usually free) audio files to an MP3 player to be listened to at the user’s convenience. This is typically done by subscribing to an RSS feed linked to the specific podcast, so that when new editions of a podcast are made available, they are automatically downloaded by podcasting software. Podcasting has made available a very broad spectrum of educationally useful audio material, including radio programmes from around the world, lectures, conference speeches, and custom-produced podcasts created by enthusiasts. Growing numbers of universities and academics are making lectures available as podcast series, usually making these freely available to anyone around the world with Internet access.
Virtual Worlds are immersive online environments whose ‘residents’ are avatars representing individuals who participate via the Internet. Some, such as the very popular World of Warcraft, are explicitly focused on gaming and entertainment. However, possibly the most well known of these from an educational perspective is Second Life, a fully three dimensional world where users with many varying interests interact, but within which many universities and businesses are now constructing virtual campuses for their students.
Voice-Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) is a protocol optimized for the transmission of voice through the Internet or other packet-switched networks. VoIP is often used abstractly to refer to the actual transmission of voice (rather than the protocol implementing it). VOIP facilitates applications such as Skype, which allow users to make free telephone calls between computers.
Instant messaging (IM) is a form of online communication that allows real-time interaction through computers or mobile devices. It is often bundled into applications such as Skype and social networking sites, so that it can be used seamlessly while within those applications. It has become such an integral part of students’ lives that many universities are working to move IM beyond the social sphere into teaching and learning.
Online applications are web-based programmes that run in web browsers and typically replicate the functionality currently available on desktop-based applications. A good example is Google Apps, which provides access to office productivity, communication, and file storage tools. Another more specialized example is Lulu, which offers online access to the tools one needs to design, publish, and print original material, facilitating inexpensive production of publications. The online nature of such tools is intended also to facilitate collaboration, peer review, and collective generation of knowledge.
Wielding the applications – by drawing on the potential of the above technologies, several new possibilities are emerging that are worth documenting:
- Mashups are web applications that combine data from more than one source into a single integrated tool.The power of mashups for education lies in the way they help us reach new conclusions or discern new relationships by uniting large amounts of data in a manageable way. Web-based tools for manipulating data are easy to use, usually free, and widely available.
- Digital storytelling involves combining narrative with digital content to create a short movie or presentation.
- Data visualization is the graphical representation of information to find hidden trends and correlations that can lead to important discoveries.
- Open journaling manage the process of publishing peer-reviewed journals online, allowing authors to track submissions through the review process, which creates a sense of openness and transparency uncommon in traditional, peer-reviewed publications.
- Google jockeying involves a participant in a class surfing the Internet during the class for terms, ideas, web sites, or resources mentioned by the presenter. These searches are then displayed simultaneously with the presentation.
- Virtual meetings are real-time meetings taking place over the Internet using integrated audio and video, chat tools, and application sharing.
- Grid computing uses middleware to coordinate disparate IT resources across a network, allowing them to function as a virtual whole, providing remote access to IT assets and aggregating processing power.
In places, where the technology is readily accessible, ‘digital natives’ (i.e. people who have grown up with ubiquitous access to ICT) will continue to demand that more learning be delivered asynchronously, via whatever electronic telecommunications device they have handy, including – increasingly – low-cost laptop computers, mobile telephones, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), and MP3 players. Consequently, mobile and personal technology is increasingly seen as a delivery platform for services of all kinds – unclear what the educational benefits are.
Of course, harnessing the above technologies for education purposes to create blended learning, including gaming, virtual reality, text messaging, and social networking sites requires continued investment in supporting academics to create these new learning venues. This will have significant financial implications for institutions. In addition, technological churn is bringing new kinds of support challenges. This introduces the importance of ensuring that technologies adhere to common open standards to facilitate integration and inter-operability. However, each new technology introduced brings its own requirements for support, while the support needs of established technologies remain. Introduction of new technologies can also create backlash from those expected to change how they work.
Critically, the emergence of these, and other related technological innovations has tremendous potential to accentuate the digital divide within education, conferring benefit on those with access to ICT and further marginalizing those without such access. However, while provision of hardware has been an essential focus of debates on the digital divide, it is now seen as only one of a range of factors that must be tackled to increase participation in the information economy. Particularly, speed and access to the Internet matter to productivity, not just to individuals’ satisfaction with their technology interactions. The digital divide continues to widen, but for increasingly the issue has become about access to broadband (high-speed) Internet connections, not just access to hardware. Thus, there is no binary digital divide, and no single overriding factor for determining such a divide.
Consequently, the concept of digital inclusion has become increasingly important, as it seeks to examine the combination of factors that may limit participation in the information economy. Factors that require consideration include access to hardware and affordable/reliable Internet connections, information literacy, extent of integration of ICT into the social fabric of everyday life, provision of technical and training support, and access to compelling applications and content. A final critical consideration arises from the above, given that recent technological developments are so much a function of the rapid expansion of the Internet. As more and more information is stored in shared, online spaces, security and privacy issues are likely to continue to be an area of contention throughout the world over the next few decades. If higher education does not actively participate in shaping appropriate security and privacy policies and strategies, criminal justice systems may drive the outcomes.