sue watling

I accept that higher education is on the cusp of change; and that there are multiple drivers. I have no argument with the role of education technology in the future of higher education, or with the potential of the Internet to widen participation, and I fully support encouraging students in becoming self motivated, self directed learners.

I would argue with the use of the word ubiquitous with regard to Internet connection and have several blog posts that do so.  http://tiny.cc/dZRvJ / http://tiny.cc/dP5oY / http://tiny.cc/nK2I9 / http://tiny.cc/5QydY Any further trawling through the current documentation on digital learning may not be the best way to respond to the issues raised. Instead, I would suggest looking backwards as well as forwards.

Titles such as the Future of HE, Harnessing the Technology and Widening Participation in HE have been around for some time. The targets of the past are also similar to those of the present; transforming teaching and learning, engaging hard-to-reach groups; building open accessible systems, offering flexible ways to study, sharing material within and between institutions, encouraging HEIs to work together, make the development of e-learning more affordable etc etc. We have been here before.

The push for embedding VLEs into HE in the 1990s came on the back of promises of improved staff and student experiences but failed to adequately manage the transition process. The sector now hosts a digital divide between staff who demonstrate confidence and competence with the technology and those who have yet to engage. If we take anything forward from this current drive for extending the boundaries of educational technology, and burdening it with ever more ambitious expectations, then it must be attention to the needs of those still at the analogue end of the digital continuum.

Even the nature of this digital debate is divisive as those with the most to offer in terms of understanding the nature of their resistance will not be here. I fully support the setting up of an Open Learning Innovation Fund but suspect it will attract the converted who are all too often unaware of the development needs of those yet to engage. Unless there is focus on the building of bridges, rather than yet more innovation, then the existing digital divide will continue to widen.

The value of blogging is in brevity but at the risk of extending this post into an unrealistic length and testing staying power, I want to show how Rogers http://tiny.cc/Ru4Lk  identifies 5 requirements for successful adoption of innovation which can be usefully applied here.

1. Offers a substantial improvement on the existing situation. For many people online delivery offers very little improvement on f2f delivery. The majority of staff and students like and prefer f2f contact.
2. Compatibility with existing life. There are multiple reasons for resisting the pressure to engage in virtual learning or adding an online dimension to a life; we should be investigating these to better understand barriers to engagement.
3. Ease of adapting. Technology can be complex and if it can go wrong it will; a single failure which experienced users may laugh off can be terminal to tentative steps at engagement.
4. Trialiability. Practice requires access to reliable hardware, appropriate software and effective internet access; not everyone has these – again for multiple reasons. There also needs to be time in which to experiment. With ever increasing workloads, and lifestyle pressures, the opportunity to have supported learning experiences may not be possible.
5. Visibility. Again, if the technology can fail it will and, with new users in particular, it often does. When this failure is visible to other people it can be the greatest deterrent of all. The move from VLEs to blogs, wikis and podcasts is indicative of the increasing complexity of the technology. The more visible that development is then the more the process of engagement is seen as an increasing challenge.

Rogers also identifies five categories of adopters which can be applied.

1. Innovator. Young risk-taker, specialist in the area and in association with other innovators creating a clique of shared practice and ideas. Vocal promoters often have little understanding of the fears and concerns of others who have yet to engage.
2. Early Adopter. Also young risk-taker with specialist knowledge, resilient, copes with failures. May have more insight into the needs of others but it’s well recognized that these leaders work in a vacuum and when they move on their work comes to a standstill and rarely survives.
3. Early Majority. Easily put off, may be reluctant users, but are gradually increasing their engagement at a low level. Success will lead to greater confidence and in time they may become champions in their own departments.
4. Late Majority. Need to see it working first, remain sceptical and take a great deal of convincing. Those who have tried and failed may gradually come to agree in principle to the benefits of online content as a supplement to f2f but will upload material retaining existing formatting. Appropriate interactive, inclusive resources designed to stimulate interest, motivate and engage only happens in small pockets of good practice
5. Laggards. The digital immigrants who find themselves in an alien land of blogs and wikis have multiple reasons for not engaging, all of them valid. Identifying and addressing these will provide valuable information and is a necessary step if the sector is serious about creating digital literacies and moving towards online HE ‘for millions’.



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