sue watling

The joy of a digital education strategy is the potential to enhance teaching and learning. The recognition we are under-resourced to support digital engagement is welcome. The fear is the starting place. Blue sky thinking is visionary. Before looking to something out of reach, some brown ground work is needed first.

When the word transformative is applied to technology I get nervous. In the beginning, twenty years ago, transformative was common. HEFCE’s first elearning strategy (2005) promoted the ‘transformative potential of technology’, following government ambitions for the internet to transform society – no less. In 2009  HEFCE published a revised strategy. Transformative is still in there but the word enhancing dominates. Enhance is a better ambition. The TQEF of those times was aptly named – Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund. The university’s Best Practice Office, renamed  Teaching and Learning Development Office, was funded through the TQEF and its Teacher Fellow Scheme a great example of how education development funds support innovative digital practices in teaching and learning, led by teachers not technologists, who sought to enhance not transform.

HEFCE have stuck to their 2009 definitions of ‘transform’ and ‘enhance’ in their triple ambitions for technology enhanced learning. They see TEL leading to:

  • efficiency (existing processes carried out in a more cost-effective, time-effective, sustainable or scalable manner)
  • enhancement (improving existing processes and the outcomes)
  • transformation (radical, positive change in existing processes or introducing new processes).

I think we need to be positioned on the middle ground of enhancement where technology is an additional pedagogic layer – not a replacement. Virtual learning cannot automate the higher education experience.  Blue sky thinking is not the way forward at the present time. We need to ground strategic thinking in what we have and what we know.

I’ve always worked where nervousness and excitement combine. Fear of technology is a serious condition. We should take more notice of it. There’s much to learn from resistance. Nervousness has many forms; you might not even see it’s there. Quite often, the realisation of how technology can support/enhance existing practice pushes the nervousness away. But like an addiction, it always back. In particular it strikes when you’re alone in front of the computer and something doesn’t work as you expected or you’ve forgotten what to do next. This is the point the technology gets put to aside and traditional methods of working re-emerge. Most people prefer the comfort of the familiar and the secure. The danger/thrill seekers are the minority. Digital practices are much less about the hardware/software/workshops – they are human and individual – and as such there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

A digital education strategy has to recognise the person behind the machine, the pedagogic differences between subject disciplines, the diversity of ways people use computers and access the internet and above all the nature of  help. This is brown ground stuff. It’s the bottom line. The starting point. Unless we have empathy for resistance, digital divides can’t be seen. Unless we acknowledge the work to be done in encouraging, supporting and resourcing the late adopters, digital education will always be unequal and exclusive.



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