the distance between digital innovation and capability

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The University of Leeds has announced a partnership with FutureLearn to offer a credit-bearing online course Environmental Challenges. This will be the first mooc of its kind in the UK. Professor Neil Morris, Director of Digital Learning at the University of Leeds, claims the new mooc offers flexibility because ‘Online education is available to anyone with access to the Internet’ and ‘Just as the digital world has transformed other areas of life, so higher education will be no exception. I strongly believe that universities need to be offering substantially more online learning.

Describing new digital approaches in higher education as ‘a great leveller’, Professor Morris cites the Government’s White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy and the Higher Education and Research Bill which puts teaching excellence, student choice and social mobility at the top of the agenda. The mooc is being promoted as a method for realising the white paper’s stress on flexibility and access, yet the document makes no mention of internet supported technology, other than a single reference to ‘the complexities of digital delivery’ with regard to measuring contact hours (p48). While debates about defining teaching quality continue, it seems technology enhanced learning is absent from the arena. By default this excludes any mention of ensuring digital inclusion, with regard to both access and practice.

Fresh from the UCISA Spotlight on Digital Capabilities conference, and two days of discussing the distance between digital innovation and digital capability, it’s clear this is another gap between assumptions and outcomes. Far from online courses offering ‘more efficient, competitive and learner-focused study options’ the reality is they’re more likely to exacerbate existing social inequality and discriminatory power imbalances.

Students on this particular mooc-route to higher education will pay for their participation and assessment. Each of the five course certificates cost £59 with a sixth assessment course at £250 and the total £545 covering access to online library content. The mooc-route has a price as well as the need for prerequisite digital capabilities, while internet access should never be taken for granted.

The UCISA conference suffered wifi problems while connections were poor at the hotel. It was a useful reminder of the risks of living digital lives in the cloud.

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Lack of access also resonated with the conference’s opening video interview where Martha Lane Fox talked about the need for digital equality and skills. Digital divides have complex social structures. Their greatest disadvantage is their invisibility but they exist everywhere, including on campus. As higher education incrementally shifts towards a mix of blended, flipped and distance learning, the need to identify and engage with digitally invisible students and staff has become a problem for which we have no clear solutions.

Seven years ago, Diana Laurillard described how ‘Education is on the brink of being transformed through learning technologies; however, it has been on that brink for some decades now.’  While the government pushes towards its student flexibility and mobility agendas, the promise of the digital continues to persuade decision makers that virtual is the way forward. The theory and the potential of digital education certainly offers promise but its practice less often fulfills it. The sector needs more opportunities like the UCISA event to discuss not just minding the gaps but in finding and appropriately bridging them too.

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