Digital education; more brown-ground than blue-sky approaches

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.

Student Rep Conference meets Student as Producer

The Student Rep’s Conference (2nd March) provided space for students and staff to talk to each other. I hope there’ll be lots of dissemination in online/offline student/staff publications because it was worth it. It’s not that students and staff don’t talk to each other – they do – in lots of different ways – but this event raised the quality of those conversations.

In the afternoon students talked about Student as Producer; the Lincoln led, cross-institutional, project which looks to redesign the curriculum along the lines of research engaged teaching. It’s like UROS has become infectious and spread across the university. Under Student as Producer, the opportunity to apply for a bursary to undertake a UROS project has been reintroduced (closing date 11 March see for details) but the real value lies in plans for restructuring teaching and learning. This is less radical than the language used to describe it. Teaching informed by and engaged with research is not new. The only difference is Student as Producer raises its profile and emphasises research as the primary organising principle of practice.

I’m reminded of a parallel movement across the sector a decade ago;  the push for embedding virtual learning environments. It reminds me because Student as Producer can appear on first encounter as something new and radical, almost verging on unsafe because of the revolutionary language it inspires.  But looking back over the history of technology in education, you see a similar mixture of adoption of new ways of working. Before Dearing, people were already engaging with digital environments, in the way that teaching already engages with research. What’s needed is time. Adoption of innovation is often less about changing practice and more a shift in emphasis on what people are already doing.  

Using Roger’s model of diffusions of innovation, Student As Producer is currently with the innovators and early adopters. As it spreads out across the university via events like the Student Reps Conference, and the Festival of Learning planned for the end of March (details here it will pick up more interest from whose practice already aligns with its organising principles. It’s  ‘stickiness’ will increase until the tipping point  is reached. You can see this with technology enhanced learning. At Lincoln, the push towards adopting the institutional VLE has finally got there. Recent surveys conducted by the Student Union and CERD suggest a high level of embedding of Blackboard into daily practice. This has taken time but the shift has happened. Student as Producer is in its early days but given time it will become as ubiquitous as Blackboard has done alongside all its potential opportunities for enhancing the experience of teaching and learning across the whole institution.

Pure fantasy

A report by Universities UK, Active Ageing and Universities: Engaging Older Learners, suggests that a new target for higher education should be the ‘retired’ as they may represent ‘crucial future activity for universities’. Yet another avenue of widening participation under Mandelson’s mandate for the expansion of new routes into higher education.  Last week at the Lord Dearing Memorial Conference, the man with the plan said: Part-time degrees, shorter and more intensive courses all offer the potential to lower student support costs, use resources more intensively and improve productivity.

This is pure fantasy. The word technology was avoided in this keynote although I suspect it lay behind the reference to alternative modes of study especially since current policy borrows heavily from the DEMOS Edgeless University report on the reasons why HE must embrace technology. If this is the case, then to say that changes in course delivery will cut costs is the wrong message.

Technology alone is not enough; as anyone who has worked in this field over the past decade can testify. Confidence and competence with computers can never be assumed for either staff or students. Resistance is alive and well and not without good cause because what the techno-addicts fail to recognise is that for many people virtual delivery involves change in practice and that requires more support – not less. It’s not a question of an ICT Helpdesk, valuable as that is, but , for staff in particular, pedagogical support for the transfer of teaching and learning from on-campus to the personal computer,  to the small screen netbook, or even smaller mobile phone; the moving from face-to-face interaction to media delivery.  As well as ensuring learning development support for traditional academic practice, there is the need to ensure digital literacy for both staff and students. Understanding authenticity and citation with search engines. Accessing electronic journal databases. Utilising the academic value of tools such as refworks and turnitin, blogs and wikis and constructing electronic portfolios. All this under the umbrella of virtual pedagogy; the change in the relationship between student and teacher as the lecturer becomes the facilitator of the vast breadth of knowledge sources on the Web and no longer the sole gatekeeper of subject expertise.

Then there are the issues around course design and validation, the requirement for inclusive practice and provision of alternative formats. Let me know what I’ve missed. How can we quality assure such a major change in direction? If all this can be done using existing resources as well as cutting costs, then those who care about the future of higher education should be very scared indeed.

Technology enhanced learned; a new digital divide

Technology enhanced learning: a new digital divide is Chapter 7 in the Future of Higher Education: Policy, Pedagogy and the Student Experience; just published by Continuum – see future_of_higher_education_flyer 

It’s been over a year since I wrote this chapter; and what a long time a year is in terms of educational technology.  If I was writing today, how different some of it  would be – and yet other aspects haven’t changed. The technology may move on but the concept of the digital divide remains with us – if anything the more the technology develops and becomes integrated into mainstream higher education, the greater the divide between those who are digitally confident and competent and those trying to attach a file or feeling perplexed at the mystery of zipping and unzipping folders.

In the next book, Teaching in Public,  I was calling my chapter Doing the Duty; accessible learning – even though the word accessible is being superceded by inclusive – that’s another blog – even another chapter.  I may challenge the unpopularity  of the ‘A’ Word  and simply title it Barriers to Access – because no matter what language you use – educational technology is both enabler and disabler. In the enthusiasm for what it can do, it’s all too easy to dimiss the inherent problems it bestows.