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Universities Web Squared: How Are Universities Rethinking Approaches to International Education, Research and Global Engagement

Professor Stephanie Fahey and Dr Eugene Sebastian, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement) at Monash University and Director Strategy and Development within the Office of Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement, Monash University

On 3 April this year across America, in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Apple launched its much-anticipated new tablet computer, the iPad. Bloggers jokingly call it the “Jesus tablet”, billing it as a saviour of media business models.

As we have come to expect over the past five years, there were long queues at the company’s store from dawn. According to Apple, 300,000 iPads were sold on the first day, which was what most analysts were expecting. Before the device even reached the store shelves, Apple had already received a quarter million pre-orders.

Some technologists believe that the iPad represents a quantum leap in personal computing that promises to transform not just one industry, but three – computing, telecom and media. While others argue that it is just a super-sized, super-charged version of an iPhone and an iPod Touch.

In the higher education sector, some predict that tablet-style computing could be a game-changer for universities and colleges. Recently Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania announced that it will give all full-time students a free iPad.

Seton Hill, along with two other universities, George Fox University and Abilene Christian University, has also declared that they plan to incorporate the iPad into their curriculum.

A day after Apple’s launch, e-learning giant Blackboard publicised that they will introduce an “app” for the iPad that will allow students to access their courses from the new device.

This is not surprising. Technological convergence of data, voice and video, coupled with mobility in computing devices such as tablet-style computers, opens up a whole new frontier for universities.

Frank Lyman, executive vice-president at CourseSmart, an eTextbook publisher of over 8000 titles online, believes that students will embrace the iPad and other tablet-style computers because of its size, its ability to access eTextbooks at a cheaper cost, and its multimedia, multifunctional capacity to use colour graphics, and to integrate audio, video and other sources of information through weblinks.

But what do we know about university students and technology?

We know that the use of and demand for ICT are growing quickly. Mobile and social networking technologies are transforming the way students communicate.

A recent survey report of three Australian universities found that the vast majority of students, about 76 per cent, said they had unlimited access to broadband internet connections. Students showed a high reliance on mobile phones for texting and making calls, with the vast majority of them doing this on a daily or weekly basis.

Among a subset of students, there was clearly a culture of regularly taking and sending pictures using mobile phones. The majority of students were regularly using the internet – daily or weekly – for looking up general information or information related to their study, email, instant messaging and other pastimes.

While just over 40 per cent of students in these universities indicated that they used social networking sites, a small but significant minority of these students were considered very frequent users of web 2.0 technologies. For example, 16 per cent of students indicated that they used social networking software once per day or several times per day, and nearly 18 per cent of students said they commented on blogs at least once per week. Similarly, 15 per cent of students said they produced and contributed to their own blog on a daily or weekly basis.

We also know that students are not only active users of technology; they are spending fewer days and less time on campus. A new study of first year student experience in Australian universities showed the proportion of students in paid work during semester continued to increase, with 61 per cent of full-time students working, up from 55 per cent in 2004.

Social operating tools are about how people connect. The emphasis is no longer on file sharing but relationships, through sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

At Monash, students are the new drivers of change for more flexible education and communications delivery platforms – not the universities. Students are expecting, if not demanding, universities to adapt quickly in adopting technology in teaching modes. This demand will only escalate as Gen Z starts to enter universities in 2020. They will demand instant turnaround and seamless systems.

An example at Monash is tablet-based teaching. Using laptops or tablet PCs, students are encouraged to interact in class with the lecturer, provide instant feedback, share resource in real time, poll and quiz. Research undertaken by the eEducation Centre found that when the interaction and feedback between the lecturer and students, and among students, is spontaneous, students learn better. Their learning process is deepened; their memory and comprehension enhanced. When used effectively, collaborative technology is more engaging, with more active learning, interaction and feedback. The eEducation Centre, however, also recognises that technology on its own has its limitations. The physical design of the classroom space coupled with changing the way a lecturer transmits knowledge are important elements in the troika – pedagogy, technology and space – that can help radically transform learning.

Monash has also joined a growing movement by introducing Google Apps. Students can access their email, calendars, timetables, important dates and booking systems by integrating Google Apps with our ‘my.monash’ intranet portal. Already 40,000 students have opted in for Google Apps – which may replace the need for an institutionally based portal, so in the future, ‘my.monash’ may be abandoned.

In the staff space, technology is important in the way we conduct international research collaborations. According to the Thomson ISI database, Monash’s international joint publications have risen annually from 840 in 2006 to 1290 in 2008, representing a 54 per cent increase.

To empower researchers to collaborate globally, we have the Monash eResearch Centre (MeRC). MeRC uses cutting-edge ICT to facilitate and enable global collaborative research through the development and customisation of collaborative services such as the use of remote broadcasting technology utilising high-definition video; and using high-performance computing and data storage and management. MeRC is working with Oxford University to connect Oxford and the Monash campus grid to harvest spare CPU cycles from existing desktop PCs. MeRC has been working with Warwick University to set up a high-definition videolink that will enable a closer exchange between researchers by way of seminars, lecturing into programs at either end, as well as other applications. And MeRC is using technology to connect our HDR students in India, through our joint research academy with the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, with supervisors and students in Australia.

Finally, universities are incorporating social media tools such as social networks, text messaging and online video into their public engagement strategy to change the way they communicate, interact and engage with their target audience – prospective students, general community and alumni.

In politics, social media is used as an election tool and a political communication tool. Barack Obama is not the first to effectively use the Internet for political campaigning. In South Korea’s 2002 Presidential Election, for example, youth successfully propelled Roh Moo Hyun to power on the back of an internet and mobile phone campaign. Although Obama is not the first to use the Internet in political campaigning, he was successful in using social media to organize grassroots support, attract substantial campaign donations and get his message across. According to communications strategist, Monte Luts, Obama’s web strategy ensured that each supporter online, regardless of where they are, has a connection with Obama. His campaign selected the most significant and important platforms to participate and his campaign’s presence on selected social networks were aimed at directing people to his website where it has a greater ability to channel people to specific activities.

Similarly, universities are increasingly using social networking tools to reach out to their target audience. In fact social media tools are used to supplement traditional mainstream strategy such as press releases. They are used to gather and share information. Tools are used to highlight their experts and resources they make available to the public, such as using Twitter and Facebook to post news releases to ‘educate and provide a glimpse into what the institution is like’.

Some universities are using blogs to better target journalists and non-traditional media. Others are using social media to connect people. University of Michigan for example uses its Facebook page with 48,000 subscribers to help connect incoming students who are eager to make new friends.

Technological convergence is challenging and opening up whole new frontiers for universities. More importantly, students are the new drivers of change for more flexible education and communications delivery platforms – not universities. As universities continue to internationalise and transform the way they engage internationally, technology plays an important role in empowering our researchers to collaborate globally. And finally, engaging our global communities requires embracing and innovating in the use of technology to better project and promote our academic strength and research excellence. And as Monte Lutz says, “if you want to reach them, you have to know where they are and connect with them there’”

About the Authors

Professor Stephanie Fahey is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement) of Monash University, responsible for setting the university’s strategic direction for international engagement, marketing and communications, and student recruitment.

Professor Fahey’s career has included positions at several Australian universities, most recently as Director of the Research Institute for Asia Pacific and Acting Assistant Pro Vice-Chancellor (International – Asia Pacific) at the University of Sydney.

Professor Fahey holds a Bachelor of Arts with honours from the University of Sydney and a PhD from the Australian National University. Her research interests have covered socio-economic development in the Pacific, primarily Papua New Guinea, the transition of Vietnamese society and economy, and more recently the use of the internet in the expression and development of international relations among youth in North East Asia.

Active in community engagement, Professor Fahey has been appointed to many influential government boards, non-governmental organisation boards and business councils including the Foreign Affairs Council, the National Board of the Australia China Business Council, the Australia Korea Foundation and a subcommittee of the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Committee which looks at Australia’s engagement with China and India..

Dr Eugene Sebastian is Director Strategy and Development within the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement), Monash University, Australia, responsible for supporting the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement) in setting the University’s strategic direction for international engagement, marketing and communications, and student recruitment.

Dr Sebastian was previously Director for International Research responsible for promoting the development of international research across the University and building strategic alliances with key international partners. Prior to joining Monash, Dr Sebastian was with the Research Institute for Asia and the Pacific at the University of Sydney where he developed and managed international development projects funded by the Japan Ministry of Finance, United Nations Development Program, UNICEF in Cambodia and North Korea, World Bank, Asian Development Bank, AusAID and the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor. Dr Sebastian also worked with a multinational firm in developing corporate training solutions for the Australian and New Zealand market.

Dr Sebastian holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from Flinders University and a PhD from the University of Sydney. His research interests include internationalisation of higher education and the use of technology in protest movements. His essay on ‘Protest from the fringe: opposing Australia’s education aid reform’, was selected for the 2007 issue of New Talents 21C published by the Australian Public Intellectual Network.

Copyright 2010, Professor Stephanie Fahey and Dr Eugene Sebastian, Monash University. All rights reserved. All material in this article is the Intellectual Property of Professor Stephanie Fahey and Dr Eugene Sebastian, Monash University and cannot be reproduced, copied, published, quoted or disseminated without the prior permission of Professor Stephanie Fahey and Dr Eugene Sebastian, Monash University.