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Adopt new technology or become “irrelevant”, OU chief warns universities

Vice-Chancellor of the Open University delivers annual Sir John Cass Foundation lecture

British universities are in danger of falling behind the rest of the world unless they embrace new technology for teaching and learning, the Vice-Chancellor of The Open University (OU) has warned.

Martin Bean, the outgoing head of OU, told an audience at Cass Business School that universities risk becoming "irrelevant" if they fail to harness new technology to improve the student experience.

Delivering the annual Sir John Cass Foundation lecture, the Australian-born former Microsoft executive challenged universities to overcome the "tyranny of conventional wisdom" that has students "sitting at desks, facing a teacher".

"The onset of technology is one of the most significant forces we have ever experienced. And we can't expect students to engage in the traditional model - passive, obedient, one-dimensional - just because 'that's the way we've always done it'," he said.

"The Americans, the Australians are adopting these new technologies, transforming their learning and teaching and presenting a new face to students throughout the world.

"How can we continue to make sure that higher education in England is not only competitive but a genuine world leader, without also embracing opportunities for technology enhanced learning?"

Bean drew comparisons with High Street brands, such as Kodak, which collapsed after failing to adapt to the new age of digital cameras. He told how the education sector also risks becoming irrelevant if it does not meet the needs of a new generation of "digital natives".

"If education doesn't keep up with this changing environment, it will not only be a missed opportunity but worse, we risk the sector becoming irrelevant and even irresponsible," he said.

"I don't believe we should be exploring technology in education just because everyone else is doing it. We should be doing it because, if harnessed correctly, technology has the potential to enrich and improve the student experience. Technology cannot replace teaching. But it can transform it."

He gave the example of how the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Carl Wieman, put all his lectures and learning materials on podcasts and told students to study them during the summer.

When term started, he gave each student a clicker voting button linked to a results screen at the front of the room. This allowed him to assess students' understanding of a subject in real-time, repeating topics which were unclear or sparking a debate on those where votes were split.

"Carl didn't use a huge amount of expensive kit - just a video, a website and some simple polling," he said. "What made the difference wasn't the technology itself, but Carl having the courage to use it in an innovative way."

About the Sir John Cass Foundation

Established in 1748, and now a major independent educational charity benefiting the whole of London, the Foundation takes its name from its founder, Sir John Cass. Born in 1661, he served as Alderman, Sheriff and MP for the City of London and was knighted in 1712.

Today the Foundation has links in the nursery, primary, secondary and tertiary sectors of education, supporting its primary and secondary schools in London, as well as the Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design within London Metropolitan University and the Cass Halls of Residence in Hackney, which provides good quality, low cost accommodation for students in London.

In 2001, the Foundation made a multi-million pound grant to City University's Business School, which was subsequently re-named the Cass Business School, and continues to provide ongoing support, to this, and other establishments bearing the name of the founder.

Watch Martin Bean giving the annual Sir John Cass's Foundation Lecture here

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