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Reading from the Book of Knowledge: Going mobile

Here TEFS considers access to information and knowledge for contemporary students and how the changes in technology may have increased inequality in education. Access to knowledge has improved only for those who have the technology readily to hand. Others with fewer means may find themselves falling behind. In the past, library access was easily open to all students and there was a distinct ‘egalitarian’ atmosphere. The advent of the www opened up a gap in access as costs of the technology precluded poorer students. This gap persisted for many years. Only now is it closing and a new era of higher education can start. The information in the physically dense encyclopaedia volumes of the ‘Book of Knowledge’ is now readily available on a mobile phone. This transition has happened in less than 30 years and in my working lifetime. The next phase will see a rapid expansion in online teaching and universities will have to abandon their large classes. Instead they will have to supplement online provision with smaller tutorials and more effective practical classes to emulate the best from the past. To the elite, knowledge may be power to keep to themselves. To the rest of us it is empowering.

Two very basic stressors affect the ability of a student to succeed at university. These are aside from any notion of inherent ability or motivation to work at the subject. First and foremost is having the time to study and to complete complex assignments on time. TEFS has concentrated attention on factors that affect this very fundamental resource. Secondly, there is access to information and knowledge that facilitates understanding. The first port of call for most students is the common didactic lecture that scopes out the extent of the task before them. Then tutorials, seminars and, in the case of the sciences, laboratory practical sessions. Failure to attend any of these erodes their road to success. The library and its vast resources then come into play and become a major 'memory bank' that has to accessed.

Times they are a changing.

In the not too distant past, access to an efficient and well stocked library was something that most students could avail of. In some respects, it was egalitarian in that all students had an equal chance to use the facility when at university. Only those commuting every day lost out on access in the evenings. I had a three mile walk every day in the 1970s but it was not too onerous. We were tutored in the means to search Chemical and Biological abstracts in a fantastic technical library. We hunted down research papers for tutorials with enthusiasm. But we had to be very efficient as it was time consuming. The underlying strategy we used is still relevant today when on the hunt for information via the internet.

Whilst university might have been a great leveller in that sense, things were very different at school. I had to commute to a grammar school across the city via two buses and three walks. It could take up to 90 minutes and the school library was only available during the day. Our local library was a two mile walk and not open in the evenings. Access to information was on Saturday afternoons, or not depending on my part time job. We had no books at home apart from borrowed ones from the library. But the assignments expanded beyond the range of school texts. Students in my position were immediately at a disadvantage with respect to access to knowledge resources. Others had books at home.

On occasions I used the encyclopaedia ‘Book of Knowledge’ volumes borrowed from an uncle who lived nearby. It was a life saver at times (see addendum anecdote below). Entering the university library later was like entering an Aladdin’s cave and I spent a lot of time there.

In one respect, the transition to the internet era opened up more access to important educational information for students. However, this happened slowly and the costs often meant that only the better off could afford access to the technology. I observed as a lecturer that those with computers and internet at home stole a distinct lead on the others in their assignments. This gap in provision widened significantly from the introduction of the first dialup connections in 1992. Soon after 1992, I developed simple web page resources for students using HTML code, but this was really only experimental. Most students did not have access and the network in the university was rudimentary. We only had one workstation in our laboratory linked to a VAX computer mainframe. However, communications with USA scientists already required email via the VAX and this replaced FAX quickly. It was a defining time. Only those embracing the technology could expect to succeed as scientists.

By 2002, the problem of equality of access to information had become a major problem. I was in the front line trying to manage assignments for an increasing number of students. Some universities were demanding that all students possessed laptop computers (see Guardian Thu 27 Jun 2002 'Compulsory computer ownership will exclude poorer students'). It seemed that disadvantaged students were of lesser priority at that time. Even by 2013, there was a major gap in access and provision opening up and this affected poorer people to a greater extent. This was reported by the BBC in January 2013 as ‘A third of poorest pupils 'without internet at home' and was based upon ONS survey family spending data of that year. The pressure on students who had no internet access at home, no computer or laptop and reliant upon over stretched workstations at the university, was a disgrace. In addition to accessing web resources, many also missed out on social communications by using only very basic pay and go phones or none at all. But the gap has been closing since then.

Catching up and bridging the knowledge gap.

This week, a BBC news report emerged that indicated that ‘Half of UK 10-year-olds own a smartphone’. The source was a report from OFCOM entitled ‘Children and parents: media use and attitudes report 2019’. The inference was that the news was surprising and also showed that “In addition, 24% of 3 and 4-year-olds had their own tablet, and 15% of them were allowed to take it to bed”. The flipside of this report should argue that half of UK 10-year-olds do not have a smartphone or tablet. The disparity declined with age but there are still significant disparities at age fifteen. See Figure 1.
OFCOM’s emphasis is on social media and other activities. Regardless of the social media concerns, the inequality in access to information may be widening for those who do not have smartphones of tablet computers. However, the gap in access to knowledge resources has narrowed for most older students as costs come down. The latest report from the ONS in 2019 indicates that 93% of UK adults have internet access ( ‘Internet users, UK: 2019’ ). Figure 2 shows the extent of the expansion of access over the years and this could be a proxy for restoring equality of access to knowledge since the pre-internet era.

However, there are still significant gaps as reported by the ONS in March of last year with ‘Exploring the UK’s digital divide’. By coincidence, a Higher Education Policy Institute blog today, ‘Big tech: what is in it for me?’ by Lucy Haire and Tony Nneke of Oracle Higher Education, summarises the problems encountered by universities in keeping up with the technology. It still is an international technological race if the UK is to succeed. Therefore the ability of students to plug into the resources they need should be paramount in striving for equality. It is tragic when a student with a strong intellect and insight struggles to access the information they seek. The situation may have improved but it still costs and can be complex.

Sadly, my last encounter with large student classes was in 2016. By then, the university had massively expanded workstation and Wifi provision across the campus under mounting pressure from the students. The library hours had become 24/7 and it was widely used. A senior member of the teaching provision administrative staff indicated to me that they did not understand why this was needed. But then arrived to work early on a Saturday morning to see the library almost full. I explained that many did not have internet access in their accommodation and had part-time jobs at other times. Some I knew went to the library in the early hours after working an evening shift. Who said that students today are lazy?

The latest UCAS advice for students, ‘Avoid hefty broadband bills’ provides a valuable insight into the various strategies students have to consider today. Basically, to use the free Wifi and workstation provision on campus. University student accommodation should have free Wifi but many cheap private digs do not. The steady rise in mobile internet access with laptops might be partially explained by students opting for this solution. However, one costly obstacle remains for many. This is access to a printer for assignments that require a hard copy. Most do not have their own printer and I encountered constant complaints about the library printers failing. Some paid inflated prices to local printshops to do the job. As a result, we moved to submission of .pdf files via ‘Turnitin’ exclusively at some cost to the staff mental wellbeing. But that is another story.

The future should not be a shock.

There has not been such a technological revolution since the invention of the moveable type printing press in 1540. It stepped up from simple printing block presses into a new era of faster reproduction. Humans have the ability to process and communicate at a fast rate. But access to information in memory is very limited without storage. The development of written text, rooted in the idea of a universal grammar advocated by Noam Chomsky, offered external storage in written archives (the Science Journal article ‘The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve?’ by Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch from 2002 offers an accessible explanation). However, access was limited to those who could read and were educated. The printing press spread copies of the collective human ‘memory bank’ across the world’s libraries in a knowledge revolution. The downside is that ‘fake news’ and propaganda started immediately. This method persisted until the www took over from the ‘Book of Knowledge’. We are now into a new era where virtually everyone can access information and work on improving our lives. The warnings laid out by Alvin Toffler in ‘Future Shock’, which I read around 1972, may come to pass. Maybe we are constrained and affected by "too much change in too short a period of time". However, we might also consider the equalising power of free and accessible information in levelling opportunities for all. Universities should lead the way in cushioning the shock by developing a new era in equal opportunities and not restrict access to information. Also, they must not comply with the idea of social engineering for the elite through inventing a market in knowledge for those who feel their advantages are being threatened. A senior professor colleague once told me that “Knowledge is power. So, I’m not going to tell you”. This is one of the most selfish and foolish things I have ever heard from an academic. More so because I was on the university Senate and on the most powerful committee, that of ‘Research and Planning’. It displayed an attitude that must be discarded at all levels. Especially because the information he peddled was incorrect and I knew that things had moved on.

Addendum anecdote.

I accessed the ‘Book of Knowledge’ a few times from my uncle when at school. It served as a source of information when the local library was not an option. One week at the age of around fourteen, I had to write an essay on the development of the UK automotive industry. There was no guidance as to how to achieve this herculean challenge between Monday afternoon and Friday afternoon of the same week. I resorted to the ‘Book of Knowledge’. My uncle allowed me to borrow the precious cargo of Volume 6 that he wrapped carefully in brown paper to protect its binding. Returning home via a back alley between the houses, a boy a bit bigger than me jumped out and tried to mug me for the parcel. I doubt he was intent on gaining access to the ‘Book of Knowledge’. The volume was incredibly dense and heavy in a literal sense. I feared losing the tome more than I feared him. I pushed him back and when he tried to attack me, I drew back and swung the book as hard as I could. It caught him with its edge around the side of his head. He then dropped like a sack of potatoes and lay very still. I checked him out and, when I ran off, I did not think he was breathing. I waited for two days to return to check it out but no police arrived and he was gone by then. It seems the whole weight of human knowledge had collided with his head. My uncle’s family still have the encyclopedia and the offending volume is there with its dented edge that I tried so hard to even out and conceal. I often wonder if people would be prepared to fight to access knowledge.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics


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