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.

Response to http://bit.ly/e3CEs by Joss Winn

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’.