Bradwell, P. (2009) The Edgeless University London UK: Demos

This short publication from the British research group Demos opens with a major challenge:

‘Until now, investment in technology in higher education has been driven by the initiative of enterprising academics and advocates within institutions, backed by trenches of funding…The next stage of technological investment must be more strategic. The sector currently lacks a coherent narrative of how institutions will look in the future and the role of technology in the transition to a wider learning and research culture.’

I therefore looked forward to seeing what the book would suggest in the way of vision for the future of universities, and where technology would fit within that vision. However, I’m afraid I came away very disappointed.

Although the challenges facing universities today were well set out in the early chapters, and the impact of technology on teaching and learning was extensively described, with descriptions of how various technologies are being used, mainly in the classroom, there was little new in the discussion. Yes, we know open content has the potential to change universities, but in what ways? The book does not tell us. Most of the ‘evidence’ provided about technology applications in higher education was anecdotal. Its discussion of fully online learning was curiously cautious and did not reflect the major expansion that is taking place, at least in North America.

But the real disappointment comes in the final chapter: Managing the Edgeless University: challenges and recommendations. The recommendations can be summed up as follows:

Sector wide policy:

  • more flexibility in accrediting informal learning
  • strong leadership from CIOs ‘who should have a greater role in the way learning provision is designed’
  • pay more attention to what students want
  • use open educational resources

Teaching and learning

  • greater rewards for teaching
  • promote easy to use best practice guides
  • engage with the geeks

More open publishing

  • research funding should encourage open access to publications
  • promote shared resources and open course material
  • curatorship (finding ways to catalogue and find open resource materials)

It’s not that I disagree with these recommendations, but this does not provide a new vision for the university of the future. Furthermore, while necessary, these are very weak policies for changing institutions with huge inertia. They are a set of recommendations for ‘accommodating’ technology within the current model of teaching, learning and research. (John Mak does in his blog posting respond to a call for a new vision based on more open access to learning, and more choice for learners.)

In some ways, I think this publication will do more harm than good for those wishing to see change in higher education. If I was an academic I would feel no need to take the challenge of technology seriously, on the basis of this book.

Thanks though to Burkhard Lehmann for drawing my attention to this publication.


  1. I too was disappointed with this publication. I think it is very conservative and it seems reluctant to draw conclusions that may fundamentally alter the way higher education operates at the monment. I broadly agree with the sector wide points you summarise above.
    I do think that higher education institutions will still set curricula and their role in assessing and accreditation will increase in importance. They will need to recognise that learning happens everywhere and not just within their hallowed halls. There will be increasing competition from other providers, many of whom will be better at using educational technologies to deliver content and integrate it with social learning to generate learning outcomes.
    At the same time the demographic changes in the academy will lead to a shortage of well qualified staff at a time when there is a continuing demand for further massification of HE. This is simply unsustainable and means that institutions must adapt radically. They will have to choose between putting resources into teaching and learning or research. Most have already chosen the latter.
    Universities will be about research. Students will want to be accredited by research intensive universities. Research intensive univerities can’t afford the time and resources required for mass teaching. Some will retreat and offer very small numbers of high fee paying students a face to face experience. Others offer assessment of learning processes to allow students to get accreditation from their institution. They may also offer taught courses for smaller numbers of students prepared to pay higher fees to be coached through a curriculum.
    Other providers will arise such as professional organisations and media organisations. Educational technologies will revolve around social learning and rich media.

    Whatever happens the next ten years should be interesting in HE.



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