Robin Mason, Ph.D.
Head of the Centre for Information Technology in Education (CITE)
The Open University
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Could you briefly describe your educational and professional background?
I have a higher degree from each of 3 countries: Canada (B.A. from University of Toronto in English), U.S. (Masters from University of Wisconsin in English) and U.K. (Ph.D. in educational technology from the Open University)

You are rather unique in that you received degrees from universities in three different countries. Are there any major differences between the countries in regard to higher education, in general, and, more specifically, the role of technology in higher education?
There are some differences in the use of technology arising from the fact that distance ed in Europe (largely I suspect because of the success of the OU) usually means print-based, asynchronous, students in the home or workplace. Therefore the technologies which support that are computer conferencing, computer based training etc. In North America, distance ed often means videoconferencing (originally satellite one to many), but synchronous (unless taped to watch later) and based on the lecture tradition. This is changing I think and everything is converging on the Web. I do notice other differences in approach: I find North American academic thinking and writing somewhat more rigid, systematized, 'in a box' than European thinking. In my experience these systems and frameworks become a crutch which obscure as often as they illuminate. I also find the North American habit of never looking beyond their own shores for academic excellence very annoying. However, having got that bit of negativity off my chest, I can now wax lyrical about how much more exciting, stimulating and enthusiastic I find the North American higher education environment. I know these are stereotypical observations - it's just that I continue to find them confirmed by reality.

You are Head of the Centre for Information Technology in Education. What is the CITEand what are your duties?
The 'bread and butter' of CITE is to work with the teaching faculties in the OU, advising them about how to incorporate new technology, developmental testing their CD-ROM materials, and evaluating courses using new media. We also carry out a lot of institutional research on media generally (e.g. best practice in using the web, multimedia etc.). Finally, we have recently been building up our own teaching profile with the launch last year of a Masters Degree in Open and Distance Education and over the last 5 years really, a program of short training-the-trainer courses in how to use various media e.g. computer conferencing, the Web, multimedia ( My job as Head could be described as herding cats! Apart from the piles of boring admin duties, it is a matter to trying to see where we should be developing, what opportunities of the many presented we should pursue and trying to provide some glue between the 10 academics, 10 or so researchers and many PHD students.

How receptive has the faculty been to your efforts and is there one technology that has found general acceptance (or general disapproval) among the faculty?
The OU has - because of its innovative history and its roots in Labor government thinking - always attracted forward looking academics and especially so in the area of technology-mediated learning. Furthermore, we are blessed with a vice chancellor and senior team who are very active in their support for new technology. What limits us is the less than 100 percent home ownership of computers and networking. We know that courses with computer and networking put off the disadvantaged student, women and entrenched luddites, so we have to move carefully to continue to serve our constituents while keeping in the forefront of technology use. It is always a delicate balance. The most widely used technology in the OU is computer conferencing, and secondarily the Web and multimedia. We are pretty anti videoconferencing, partly because it isn't in the home, but also because it underlines a pedagogical model (one to many, teacher directed lecturing etc.) to which we do not subscribe.

One of your areas of expertise is in the globalization of education. How did you come to be interested in that topic and why do you think it is an important area of research?
What finally crystallized this area of globalization of education for me was a young person who came up to me after I had delivered a keynote address to a 'computers in education' conference in Rio. She asked whether I had heard of the University of Southern Queensland because they were offering a Diploma in Distance Learning on the Web and she was considering applying. She wanted my opinion about whether this was a prestigious university. From this incident, I got a taste for what global education of the future might be like and what the issues were from the student perspective. Of course my own institution has been moving progressively down the globalization route, so I had considerable experience of the issues from the provider's viewpoint. I think it is an important area because

  • I think greater globalization of education is inevitable
  • I think there are pedagogical advantages if the context is well prepared
  • the technology is developing to support global delivery (although of course many will never have access to it).

I was especially interested in your discussion of the problems of educational globalization. You divide the problems into four categories -- cognitive, social, educational and cultural. Which of these problems do you think will be the hardest to overcome? Do you have any ideas for how to overcome it?
By far the hardest problems are cultural. In a sense, I don't think they will be overcome - there will merely be affordances (I think that is the trendy word at the moment). By this I mean that in time (when global courses become more commonplace) we will all come to see the cultural issues differently. I can't honestly predict how I think we will see these cultural issues - but I suspect it will be just that other pressing problems will arise from the 'roll-out' of globalization such that the misunderstandings, the unequal participation of cultures, the domination by US culture etc. will no longer be centre stage.

Are there 2 or 3 books or articles that are "must reads" for someone interested in learning more about educational globalization?
Here are my suggested 'must reads': Collis, B. (1996) Tele-Learning in a Digital World: the future of distance learning. International Thomson Computer Press, London. Daniel, J. (1996). Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media. Kogan Page, London. Thompson, M. (ed) (1996). Internationalism in Distance Education: A Vision for Higher Education. ACSDE Research Monograph No 10, Penn State University, PA.

If you had unlimited time and money for research, what research project would you do first and why?
I guess I'd wish for longitudinal studies which followed students through 3 or 4 years of technology-mediated learning, especially the Web, looking at the effects of using hypertext extensively, looking at cultural effects of learning in a cross cultural environment etc.

If you were able to conduct such a study, what would you expect to find?
I would expect to find students who had carried out all of their higher education online to be very adept at searching, browsing, selecting, re-using and synthesizing information. Does this represent a fundamental change? A change in the way we learn? I doubt it. My basic epistemology is a largely circular one - we circle around a range of possibilities over the years and arrive back where we started "and know it for the first time". We are adapting yes, but are we changing fundamentally? Probably not. As more information is digital and computer-based, it is important that we do adapt e.g. the library skills of yesteryear to the Web skills of today.