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Blackberrys and Beyond: Technology and Global Higher Education

It is interesting to see how work and social habits in the university are changing as the mobile phone and the other diverse and relatively inexpensive instruments of mobile telecommunication become an indispensable adjunct to life. We are no longer in a world where communication ceases. So how is this affecting the running of universities?

First off, it is rare nowadays to see academics and administrators without their mobile-phone prosthetics that seem to be indispensable. Of course, there are a few holdouts who are proud of their (often feigned) non-use but they are gradually falling by the wayside.

Then, university meetings are being populated by mobiles, laptops, iPads, and the rest. Indeed most universities are gradually changing to paperless working, and not before time. There are all kinds of complexities associated with this move, but it will surely happen soon in most of the institutions where it has not happened so far, with possible benefits for the environment and costs.

Following on again, there is the practice of teaching. All kinds of feedback and assessment have become more rapid, sometimes with difficult consequences (like the students who expect instant answers). Meanwhile large class teaching is being transformed by the use of laptops and iPads. All kinds of software now exists which can take advantage of mobile telecommunications to inform, like the university-generated apps that are now appearing in profusion on smart phones, or aid teaching practice.

Research is also being influenced. Instant messaging and other instant means of communication are starting to have an effect on experimental practice as great as occurred earlier when it became possible to port very large date sets around. Researchers who are at a distance can communicate as though they are just around the corner. Then, apps are starting to become research tools, able to be used to gather data which includes real time spatial locations, like the “mappiness” project based at the London School of Economics.

Finally, there is the balance between work and non-work. This was always pretty thin in the case of academics. Now it is becoming an even more porous boundary. In a recent, much-cited article in The Financial Times, Lucy Kellaway has noted the increasing prominence of what she calls “worlidays,” holidays where the participants mix in a little work and are still always on. She notes how these kinds of holiday can still be relaxing. There is not an either work or relaxation moment but a change of scene may make both work and relaxation more positive.

All this does not mean that there are no pitfalls in the new hegemony of mobile telecommunications. One is a simple matter of politesse. I am still deeply offended when people e-mail in meetings that I am chairing: to me, it seems to be a declaration that the business being transacted is unimportant and can be dismissed. But I realize that I may be in a minority as people become more and more used to being always on.

The other is a more serious matter of blinkering. Research such as Rich Ling’s New Tech, New Ties or, more recently, Daniel Miller’s Tales from Facebook show that the new technologies can tend to narrow and reinforce social interaction rather than broadening it: people often tend to stick with their own kind, with ever-widening circles of people who agree with them. I worry that this effect might infect researchers who are increasingly able, through these devices combined with blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and the like, to live in even more specialised worlds of research and gossip, even though they may feel like cosmopolitans.

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