It isn’t technology it’s learning design


This began as a PhD reflection but turned into a blog post because the issues matter. We need to talk. What has gone wrong? Quite a lot.

December 1 was the first Graduate School Research workshop day. I thought joining in remotely would be a motivator. I’m self-funding so every opportunity for contact is welcome. Via Collaborate and a fixed camera I followed the slides and presentations during the morning but couldn’t join in the activities. In the afternoon the sound was lost. I’m hoping the recording will be ok and wondering when it will appear on the VLE. The cognitive connection has already faded.

What is meant by the phrase ‘online distance learning?’ What did I get from passively listening and watching on my laptop? Not a lot to be honest. The common model of distance learning is still a delivery one. Recorded lectures are seen as progression and if you build in some formative MCQ then Hallelujah – you have an online course.

My PhD includes mandatory research and ethics modules. They’re produced by Epigeum, so expensive and considered gold standard. I’ve sat alone in my room clicking through linear screen after screen of content in order to take the test at the end. It’s lonely and my learning is surface recall rather than any deeper approach achieved by cognitive understanding via critical reflection or discussion with colleagues.

What has gone wrong with the promise of student centered, interactive collaborative learning – online? How can the principles of Social Learning Theory be applied to what is fundamentally learning in isolation?


In the THES last month there was a piece called Mass Learning must mean web based study It claimed the elements exist to make online learning happen, but ‘institutional inertia’ creates lack of progress. Thinking this might refer to the invisibility of on-campus digital divides or lack of recognition of diverse digital capabilities I read on. Technology has its problems I’m told – and here the piece links to Distance and Discontent the Downside of Digital Learning – but it will continue to evolve, solving all the negative issues as it does.

There are barriers such as the need for more teaching hours (at last – acknowledgement it requires additional resources rather than less to build and run effective online learning environments) plus new forms of examination and inclusion of ‘the broader social and cultural benefits of higher education’ but hey the piece goes on – none of these are insuperable. No. The problem is the university itself. Over the past decades they’ve continued to expand their physical presence at the expense of their virtual one, to a point where they can no longer afford to go online. As the author says, Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas but – don’t you know – technology is still the solution!


As if this were not depressing enough, the Distance and Discontent piece offers two further narratives of online education failure. Against a sector which still shouts about the transformative power of digital environments, something isn’t fitting. The rhetorical promise of e-learning solutions continues to be promoted in headlines, straplines, Jisc-speak and conference halls. In the meantime research and anecdote speak of digital depository models of VLE usage, empty discussion forums and neglected project sites return broken links and 404 errors.

So often over the years I’ve seen digital layers added onto existing face-to-face practice. It rarely creates effective online learning because it isn’t about the technology, it’s about learning design.

images from 

5 thoughts on “It isn’t technology it’s learning design

  1. Sorry to hear that. Sounds kind of wretched. Have done two webinars lately. Oxford University press one on second language learning, one in New Zealand in Maori on issues of language revival. Both pretty good, with some interaction through texting and voting. When it works it’s good…


    1. Thanks John although I wouldn’t go so far as to call it wretched – more an opportunity to review and revise practice 🙂 Interaction is key to successful online learning I think.


  2. Hi Sue

    Just picked this up. You’re absolutely right of course, (and I’m having similar experiences from the other side of the screen). We ran online seminars throughout our EdD last year, but it was hard to get people to contribute to discussions. It’s much harder to organise breakout groups when people aren’t in the same room, and frankly the seminars simply degenerated into online lectures. There’s something profoundly dispiriting about blethering on into a web cam. At least in a classroom you can see if people are losing interest, and do something about it. So this year I’m going to record the lectures and insist that students participate in activities mostly via the discussion group. I suspect I’ll be e-mailing a lot of reminders!

    Anyway I found a couple of interesting articles that have informed my thinking a bit – don’t know if you’ll find them of interest but here they are anyway.

    Coulthard, D. and Keller, S. (2012) Technophilia, neo-luddism, eDependency and the judgement of Thamus. Journal of Information, Communication & Ethics in Society, 10(4) 262-272.

    Sarid, A. (2016) Self-critical appropriation: An assessment of Bauman’s view of education in liquid modernity. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 1-11.

    The Sarid one is open access – presumably you can get the Coulthard one through Northampton’s E-library but if not, let me know and I can send you a copy.

    Good luck with the rest of your PhD


    1. Thanks for the paper suggestions Julian. I wonder how much lack of participation is lack of confidence and experience with digital communication. I do think we tend to underestimate the effect of this. Too often the issues get dismissed as something we should all be engaging in as part of our ‘professional’ personas but if you’re digitally shy then it can be more of a challenge than those of us accustomed to digital working practices might realise. Good to hear from you 🙂


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