Keynote Three (SEDA Conference) was apt for a conference on using technology to enhance learning. Titled ‘Fables and fairy tales – how can technology really enhance learning?’ it was presented remotely by Susannah Quinsee from City University London. Using excellent pre-prepared audio and visual resources, Susannah led an exploration of the myths around the application of technology to learning. Key to this were group activities on the use of technology as a transformative tool for enabling interaction with learners.
Firstly we were asked to consider cases where technology hasn’t worked. Second Life was mooted. The hype has died down and while many universities have invested in a Second Life campus, there seem to be less examples of good practice; for no presentations at the conference had included Second Life. Secondly we took on the role of Luddite or Enthusiast in order to examine the arguments for and against technology. In my group the Luddites argued that technology supported behaviours which were shallow, superficial, bite-sized, anti-social, breakable and could lead to losing sight of traditional academic values. The enthusiasts argued that face to face sociability was a myth, online communities of practice were powerful aids for learning, the ease of digital access facilitated flexible learning opportunities, virtual discussions offered scope for review and checking understanding, technology could make learning fun, blended learning offered complementary tools which could enhance the learning experience, support independent learning and help students become more reflective, deeper and enquiring learners. Phew! On paper the enthusiasts were certainly in the lead.
The final part was a Skype Q and A session with Susannah, who was due to give birth to twins at any moment. Intermittent sound problems could have reinforced the anti-technology argument but to see and hear Susannah in real time countered this more than sufficiently. The Keynote surfaced what for me were many of the key themes of the conference.
- Staff need time to engage with new ways of working; staff development funding is essential to make this time possible and institutions need to invest in opportunities to make this happen.
- Social media can replicates and reinforce the power of group learning
- Technology for learning does not replace face to face teaching; it is complementary to it.
- The phrase digital natives and digital immigrants is the most unhelpful concept ever (I would suggest maybe outdated rather than unhelpful. Culturally specific at the time, it was a useful way to draw attention to the issues. A decade on, the divide still exists, but attention is now on the quality of the ‘native’s engagement’)
- Digital literacies are fundamental to graduate attributes and teacher education. The sector needs to invest in bridges which cross digital divides.
- Ideally, the digital component in teaching and learning should be taken for granted rather than highlighted but we have not got there yet.
- Digital teaching and learning is integral to teaching and learning in higher education and all teacher education programs should contain content relevant to the world of the digital learner.
All conferences have value but in terms of supporting staff using technology for teaching and learning on a day to day basis and this was one of the most useful I’ve attended. It would be a shame if it were to be a one-off event because SEDA have an important role to play in raising awareness of digital divides and creating bridges to cross them.
Keynote Two, with Jane Hughes from Wolverhampton University, addressed the role of technology in teacher education programmes, suggesting there is not enough support for acquiring the digital literacies essential for learning in a digital age. In an echo from the first keynote, Jane reiterated the requirement for educating citizens of the future. We need to be equipping students for living and working in a digital society.
Inevitably this vision of adopting brave new digital worlds is countered by the risks involved in making changes in the current ‘risk-averse’ climate. Also raised was the lack of time and institutional support for moving to new digital ways of working. It’s something of a conundrum because on the one hand there are the advantages of digital engagement but on the other there is the short supply of ‘technologists of the learning kind’ and an even shorter supply of funding for development. Teacher education programmes may need to incorporate digital learning but teaching staff also need an informed basis for adopting new digital ways of working.
The challenge of Web 2.0 tools can be a steep learning curve. Not only do you need to learn through personal application which takes time, it also requires the paradigm shift from students as consumers to students as creators and collaborators in their own learning experiences. It was interesting to hear several references to ‘Student as Producer’ t the conference where the phrase was being aligned with those digital ways of learning which support student participation in the learning process.
The phrase Blended Learning Advisor was popular as were calls for an approach which begins with existing practices; looking at how technology can enhance through the language of ‘as well as’ rather than ‘instead of’. A clear message was for staff educators who are the users of technology to take the lead, rather than the tied and dyed technologists who may not have the necessary pedagogical frameworks. There were lots of examples of technology being raised and praised but not always in a scholarly way. This is where teacher education programmes can make a real difference and again ‘Student as Producer’ comes to mind with its ‘Digital Scholarship’ strand.
Overall was the recognised need for an infrastructure which supports the training and developing of digital literacies. These would include the confidence and competence with using and applying a range of Web 2.0 tools and selecting them appropriately to support digital modes of inquiry, collaboration and authorship. I liked Jane Hughes analogy of a jigsaw approach to learning because this I how using Web 2.0 tools can appear. A workshop led by Sue Buckingham and David Walker looked at social media for developing a professional learning network. It demonstrated the value of digital ways of working alongside the fear this can evoke in the uninitiated. The sheer number and variety of tools can be an insurmountable barrier. I’ve been dabbling for some time but hadn’t come across a Twitter Fountain or Drigo, Quora, Nefsis , VoiceThread or Peerwise. It’s this proliferation of content which is paradoxically inviting and threatening at the same time. However, engagement is often initiated in unexpected ways. It was in this workshop I heard the best advice. Some one said they didn’t want to use Twitter to talk about breakfast but having gained some funding, and something to talk about, they were experiencing the value of the networking tweeting can offer. It’s this experiential approach which can be the most useful key to unlocking some of the cognitive barriers.
Social media can be like finding a tree in a forest. Where do you begin? There are so many possibilities. As a result, digital divides on campus are inevitably widening. There is a real need for more bridges and teacher education programmes, where the lines between staff and students become blurred – as the collaborative and creative possibilities of social media already blur distinctions between teacher and learner – may be one of the more appropriate places to start building.
At the SEDA Conference ‘Using Technology to Enhance Learning’ it was good to see recognition of the value of transition into higher education activities and the need to address support for digital literacies. The concept of support for transition needs little explanation but defining the term digital literacies can be challenging. Inevitably we use phrases like ‘preparing students for a digital world’ often without consideration of all the prerequisites this entails. In a Keynote speech ‘10 years of technology enhanced learning – how far have we (really) come?’ Helen Beetham spoke of the role of public education to prepare students for a time in the future. In an increasingly digital society, it should go without saying this requires support for graduate attributes of the digital kind. At the moment the vehicle for technology enhanced learning has multiple wheels and all of them round. There is a lot of replication across the sector, much of it through individual pockets of excellence located within the Library, Student Support or Study Skills – where preparing students for a digital world remains a bolt on extra rather than any adjustment to curriculum design appropriate for the university in the 21st century. It will be interesting to watch the current round of JISC funded projects as these contain the proviso of embedding digital literacies as a whole institution approach.
Resistance to digital pedagogy is often disguised and conferences like these are useful for surfacing the issues. I attended a session on podcasting where staff followed guidelines to keep file length to under 5 minutes yet student responses included ‘ they’re too long’, ‘I’ve got too much else to do’, ‘I don’t have time,’ ‘I don’t like podcasts’. The myth of the digital native continues to be laid to rest. In another session we looked at teacher education where staff have opportunities to be students, in this case actively engaging with content creation, rather than content consumption, and using a range of Web 2.0 tools. Responses were inevitably mixed and it was interesting to see how in an age of ubiquitous PowerPoint, there are still many educators for whom this is a bridge too far. Supporting staff to be digital learners is key to this conference and it would be a shame for it to be a one-off theme. SEDA is for Staff Educational Developers so participants re seeing both sides of the digital divide. It’s not tech-heavy but tech-aware; accepting the necessity for digital ways of working and working on ways to make his happen. Recognition of the issues around digital literacies are being surfaced but we need to be sure the solutions are accessible and involve the enthusiasts who remember what techno-fear feels like as well as the technologists who are pushing at the boundaries with their digital hearts and minds.