Technology has role to play in bringing education to all

Modern equipment offers students flexibility in study and lets universities reach more people

I began to teach law in 1991. "Technology" then meant the word processor, the photocopier and the overhead projector displaying slides on sheets of acetate. Now we have, in our pockets, the ability to produce podcasts, e-books and presentation slides. Not only that, the smartphone, tablet or laptop allow us to share our ideas and knowledge through blogs and other social media.

Schools and universities routinely use course management systems as platforms to make teaching materials available to students. These tools are sometimes used to add a dimension to communication with students and to allow them to discuss and share their own work.

The feedback I have had from use of some of these tools in teaching land law suggests that students value the flexibility this new technology offers. They can use the materials to prepare for class or to revise when it suits them and as it suits them.

We are still at the early stages of understanding how to use these new tools. Teaching remains a very human activity and it makes sense to think that the role of the new technology is to complement, not replace, face-to-face teaching. For now, the textbook is safe.

Deciding on how to use the technology is also a challenge for universities. It is costly to produce the materials (at least in terms of time), and they need to be improved and updated all the time. In land law, a regular stream of new judgments and academic perspectives needs to be reflected upon and absorbed. So the case for their use has to be made. This case will draw upon factors such as added educational value, a desire to share knowledge and insights, student expectations and (potentially) a sense that institutional legitimacy depends on their use.

The collection of notes, podcasts and questions made available to students can be seen as a textbook tailored to the demands of a particular course. The same can be said of the Massive Open Online courses that are now so popular.

Everyone likes to learn. The desire to be informed and to understand the world and oneself more deeply is a very human need. Universities have responded to this by having their own iTunesU or YouTube channels. Another benefit of the new technologies is that interesting ideas that once spread no further than the lecture theatre or seminar room can add to this "edutainment".

Finally, the technologies allow universities to carry on their traditional role but reach more people. This, too, could have profound effects on the courses that can be offered and on the way that universities operate. As more and more people become accustomed to higher education, they are equipped to study as if they were at university but to do so outside its walls. These tools allow universities to cater for this possibility. We live in exciting but highly uncertain times.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Technology has role to play in bringing education to all