hatching the golden technology egg

golden egg in a nest

I’ve been reviewed and restructured. Again. It’ happens a lot. This time I’ve been shifted from technology to academic practice. Sounds good. Our new role is teaching enhancement – which might or might not involve technology – but unlike TEL Advisor colleagues, my role at Hull was ‘Academic’ TEL Advisor so ‘pedagogy first’ from the start.

Over the years, through research as well as practice, I’ve tried to understand where the TEL promise went wrong. Because it did. It has. To this day, TEL remains the domain of the few rather than the many.

image showing a crowd of toy people

It’s 20 years since the The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (1997). The Dearing Report presaged the influence of the internet on HE in terms of globalisation, employability and virtual learning environments. From the start VLE were for the ‘acquisition and delivery of electronic information [including] techniques to improve the management of the teaching and assessment process’ (13.16)

Which words jump out at you? Delivery? Information? Management? If you replace Techniques’ with pedagogy then it could mean active learning but the sentence still reeks of things teachers do rather than students. Language matters so much. Discourse analysis is dead. Statements are accepted at face value (think social media + elections) while the final remnants of postmodernism are smothered by a return to positivism. A rant is brewing. I digress…

signpost showing Hope and Dispair

Dearing offers pockets of hope e.g. VLE require ‘a radical change in attitudes’ (33) because ‘… many staff still see teaching primarily in terms of transmission of information, mainly through lectures’ (8.14). The shift from passive to active pedagogies is welcome, as is development of an effective strategy which involves ‘…guiding and enabling students to be effective learners, to understand their own learning styles, and to manage their own learning.’ (8.15) The concept of ‘learning styles’ has been rightfully challenged (Coffield, 2013) but the principle of autonomous, independent learning remains a keystone of higher education today. However, the problems outlined 20 years ago remain. The internet influences attitudes and practices, employers want digitally capable graduates and institutions continue to make massive investments in technology, chasing that elusive golden technology egg.

basket of coloured eggs

There is a mis-match. An on-campus digital divide. Witnessing reluctance and resistance towards digital ways of working is a common occurrence. The technophobes outweigh the technofans 100-1. When it comes to developing ‘digital capabilities’ (the latest buzz-phrase for digital competence and confidence) there is no ‘one-size-fits-all-model’.  To become ‘digital’ involves a cultural shift, a deep-rooted change in attitudes and beliefs. Filling in a survey or attending a workshop isn’t going to cut it. Neither is the practice of offering online resources to the digitally shy.

cartoon showing a person fighting a wall of technology

Last week I posted a photo of my phd-floor with the hundred plus papers at the core of my literature review. Annotated, highlighted, torn at the edges, covered in coffee stains – I have digital devices, including a Kindle, but this is my preference. The papers are the tangible, visible evidence underpinning my thesis chapter.  They help me ‘see’ the structure and content in a way a table of contents doesn’t.

piles of paper across a floor kindle like device

Yet I believe VLE have the potential for genuine HE experiences which challenge and stretch.  Section 8 of the Dearing Report Students and Learning outlines the C&IT future for higher education. Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is prescient reading. VLE can support ‘…tutorials, simulations, exercises, learning tools and educational games can be highly interactive and provide activities that students need to develop their understanding of others’ ideas and the articulation of their own.’ [8.21) From my own experience, in particular the OU’s MA in Open and Distance Learning, I agree with this and with the list in section 8.2 of the potential affordances of computer-based programmes. But I don’t like this phrase.

Digital education is about the person against the machine. So far the Turing Test remains unpassed. Education is fundamentally a social experience yet Dearing acknowledges ‘…personal contact between teacher and student, and between student and student, gives a vitality, originality and excitement that cannot be provided by machine-based learning, however excellent…individuals are likely to choose to receive information and experience in the company of others, rather than alone.’ (8.21)

computing technologies

For me, the phrase ‘machine based learning’ brings home the reality of TEL in HE being a human v technology binary. Highly rated teaching is interpersonal. Popular staff get votes because of their effective communication skills. No one ever votes up a VLE or module site as inspirational. Looking back to Dearing I wonder if the technofans expected too much from the start, influenced by the rhetorical promises of the sales pitch – or if we simply misread the evidence.

three medals bronze, silver and gold

HE has moved into an era of ‘teaching excellence’. Regardless of our frustration at the metrics, the TEF is here. It underpins our new team remit of teaching enhancement and I welcome the opportunity to revisit the designs of the student learning experience.  Pedagogy first not technology first. Maybe this is where it went wrong. HEFCE’s eLearning Strategy (2005) tried to address the technological determinism of the Dearing Report but it was too late. The digital horse had bolted.

Success depends on ‘…appropriate technology, adequate resources and staff development’ as well as ‘…the effective management of change.’ (13.10).  Maybe of necessity, the Dearing Report has a technology first focus. Today it’s different. VLE (meaning all virtual tools and platforms) are here, embedded and present. The golden tech egg is sitting in its nest and the time has come to hatch it. So let’s start shifting from the ‘how’ to use the tech to the ‘when’, the ‘where’ and the ‘why’ instead.


Coffield, F. (2013) Learning styles: time to move on. National College for School Leadership. http://www.learnersfirst.net/private/wp-content/uploads/Opinion-Piece-Learning-styles-time-to-move-on-Coffield.pdf 


images from pixabay except golden egg in a nest from http://all-free-download.com/free-photos/download/golden-egg-nest-03-hd-picture_166586.html 

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#digifest17 asks if digital technology is changing learning and teaching

computing technologies

We all know determinists. Excited about the new. Putting tech in place. Waiting for transformation. Any failure is blamed on it being the wrong time, place or connections, but there’s much more than this to digital education. We have to go deeper.

Enthusiasm for education technology comes in waves. Last century it was CBA, CMC, VLE, then web 2.0 and social media, followed by oer and mooc, mobile devices, big data and dashboards. There were the go-to reports. Paul Anderson’s What is Web 2.0? (2007), or Peter Bradshaw’s Edgeless University (2009). Back further to Oleg Liber’s framework for pedagogical evaluation of vle (2004), Mapping pedagogy and tools for effective learning design by Conole et al (004) or Death of the VLE by Mark Styles (2007). These are just a few and how many more predictions  from these times remain more promise and potential than fact?

advertising from jisc digifest17

I didn’t go to Digifest17 but followed as much as I could online. For me the star of the show was Amber Thomas from the University of Warwick. In conversation with Neil Morris from the University of Leeds, Amber dared to refer to digital technology as pixie dust and snake oil, suggesting what matters more are the non-digital aspects of education, namely the design of learning experiences.

There’s more than a little synchronicity here. My ex Lincoln colleague Andy Hagyard is now Academic Development Consultant at Leeds while Kerry Pinny is Academic Technologist at Warwick. Spot the similarities. We should form our own SIG. In the meantime, we’re under review at Hull and top running for our new job titles is learning enhancement rather than TEL. Amber was spot on. The future is less with the technology and more for the people.

looking for evidence cartoon

Predictions of tech-adoption are rarely realised in the way we expect. We look in the wrong places. It’s not the tech innovators or early adopters (who can be pedagogically astute but remain a minority), it’s those who self-exclude from technology events and opportunities. Who – dare I say – care more for the EL in TEL than the T itself. The solution to learning enhancement is not rocket science. It’s as simple as this. We need to talk more across our different sides of the fence.

Make the conversations less driven by technology and more about evidence of success. How do we know what works and why? Where is the scholarship of learning technology? The research informed practice? I’ve referred to existing literature critiques before in TEL-ing Tales, Evidence of Impact and Learning Design+TEL=the Future. These critiques can be powerful drivers and all the more reason for change. The brave new world of TEF and learning analytics is an optimum time to review the design of learning and how to evaluate its impact. Not just at the end, when students are moving on and it’s too late to change their experience, but by building iterative loops of feedback throughout modules and courses which tell everyone how they are doing when it most matters.

suggested list of criteria for learning design

Digifest17 was bold. …we’ll be celebrating the power of digital, its potential to transform and its capacity to revolutionise learning and teaching.

Transformation and revolution is the early language of BECTA  – remember the internet super highway? It’s worth revisiting HEFCE’s 2005 and revised 2009 elearning strategies, the Towards a Unified eLearning Strategy Consultation Document (2003) and the National Committee of Inquiry into the Future of Higher Education, otherwise known as the Dearing Report (1997). The text from the past is scarily similar to the text of the present.

rosie the riveteer

We’re still talking transformation and revolution, yet as Diana Laurillard said nearly ten years ago – ‘Education is on the brink of being transformed through learning technologies; however, it has been on that brink for some decades now.’ (2008: 1)

Maybe technology isn’t the answer. The literature around Inquiry based learning stresses the need for fallibility so I have to admit I could be wrong. However, if technology is the answer then I’d suggest a more critical approach is needed. Here’s some suggestions. Andrew Feenburg’s Ten Paradoxes of Technology or Questioning Technology, Norm Friesen’s Critical Theory: Ideology Critique and the Myths of E-Learning, Neil Selwyn’s Looking beyond learning: notes towards the critical study of educational technology or Distrusting Educational Technology for starters. Then lets have conversations. Let’s start reading groups which discuss the pros and cons from wider social and cultural perspectives. Let’s ask questions like why are we investing in technology in the first place? How useful is data counting footfall and logins? Where is the evidence of enhancement?

quote from Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2011)Slowly but surely places are emerging where education technology is aligning with academic practice. It seems a promising way forward. Why wouldn’t we want to introduce scholarship and pedagogy, build learning design around experiential loops of action research and appreciative inquiry? Lets shift the emphasis and make the future for higher education one which is more shaped by people rather than by machines.

groups of students


Images from Learning Analytics & Learning Design Digifest17 presentation by Patrick Lynch (p.lynch@hull.ac.uk) and pixabay.com. Jisc image from Jisc


does learning design + TEL = the future?

typeset image from pixabay.com

Language matters. Whether its training or lecture capture instead of teaching or recording resources, the words we use and the ways we interpret them are full of unconscious bias. When designing learning, one of the first steps is to bust the jargon. Ask the questions. What are we saying here and what does it mean?

This week I attended a workshop on Marking and Feedback with Prof Lin Norton. Lin spoke about final vocabulary, a term used by philosopher Richard Rorty which refers to words containing deeply held beliefs and assumptions without the necessary explanations. For example feedback comments like good, excellent, exactly what I’m looking for. The marker knows what they mean but it isn’t clear to the recipient. Lin says final vocabulary leaves students no room to manoeuvre. Markers need to make comments which open up conversations rather than close them down. Like active listening or going back to Socratic questioning. Those ancient Greeks really knew their stuff.

question mark from pixabay

The tendency to make uncritical use of language is common. We’re often more subjective than we realise. I think I’m a critical reflector but there’s always something new to learn.  I don’t have a data driven approach to practice. A bit dyscalculic as well as suspicious of quantitative data sets. No matter how the figures are presented, I want to know the stories behind them. But – I’m also an action researcher and promoter of experiential learning. I like critical reflection loops which take you on a journey of change.

data image from pixabay

Recently I’ve come to realise I do have a data driven approach; it’s my interpretation of what data represents which is skewed. Phrases like Big Data or Learning Analytics made me think randomized controlled trials or NSS scores and VLE dashboards. I knew data didn’t  have to be numbers – I’m doing qualitative research for heavens sake (Doh!) but my subjective interpretation was linking the two together. It’s only by developing a learning design approach to TEL with an expert data-king colleague which has uncovered a bias I wasn’t consciously aware of.

scrabble tiles from pixabay.com

How often do we act without questioning that we do? Last week I blogged about the impact of research on TEL and the literature TEL people use to inform their practice. I’m still searching for answers. Let’s broaden it out. Where’s the evidence base for learning and teaching? Is there a contemporary equivalent to Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (1987)

  • encourages contact between students and faculty,
  • develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,
  • encourages active learning,
  • gives prompt feedback,
  • emphasizes time on task,
  • communicates high expectations, and
  • respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

The authors claim these support ‘six powerful forces in education’

  • activity,
  • expectations,
  • cooperation,
  • interaction,
  • diversity,
  • responsibility.

Spot the gaps. It would make a useful online activity. I’d add the need for critical thinking, reflection and creativity as well as having an evidence base. Let’s put scholarship in there. Being research informed and engaged.  This week my colleague and I have scoured the UK literature  around L&T in HE (e.g. Knight, Biggs, Prosser, Trigwell, Trowler, Race, Baud, Nicol, Moon, Brookfield etc) but can’t find anything so succinct or contemporary.

Maybe the subject is too complex to be reduced to bullet points. Maybe it reflects its late arrival. In many ways pedagogic research in HE is still the new kid on the block. It’s not a happy partner to the REF and HE staff having an ‘appropriate teaching qualification’ is a relatively recent requirement. The HESA returns for data on academic teaching qualifications was only introduced in 2012/13 with many  institutions still returning a percentage of ‘not known‘.

opening slide from lin Norton assessment workshop

Events like Lin Nortons are welcome opportunities to ask questions and discuss answers, as in the slide image above. I think they’re useful for TEL people. Marking and feedback are foundation elements of the student experience. Sometimes it can help to separate them out from the technology – which in itself risks becoming a distraction – in order to examine more closely the fundamental principles of assessment practice. Not all TEL people come from a teaching background so it helps to make TEL about learning as well technology. The problem is the language. Again, language matters. Too often when you say you work with TEL or in a TEL Team you’re instantly categorised into a techie box.  This is one of the reasons I believe TEL needs to be reversed. Less of the T and more L please Bob.

There’s a phrase associated with the early days. RTFM stood for read the ******** manual.  All computers came packed with a doorstop of an instruction book. RTFM soon came to mean don’t ask me how the bloody thing works, go and look it up yourself.

Today the technology has (allegedly) changed to a more intuitive click and play  approach – as well as being introduced almost from birth – and the internet has replaced the manual. Today we know how it works. We need to be asking where it’s being used and why. What do we know about how people learn? What is the equivalent to Chickering and Gamson’s principles for 21st century TEL? If we’re promoting digital feedback then lets look at Lin Norton’s research or have a TEL Team discussion around the HEA’s Marked Improvement or visit outputs from the Oxford Brookes ASKe project or REAP.

I believe the design of learning is an essential part of TEL and we should adopt a scholarly approach to our practice by being more research informed and engaged. In which case maybe RTFM is not redundant but needs updating to RTFL. Read the ******** literature.

Now the HEA Subject Centres have closed and the HEFCE funded CETLs have come to an end who is promoting research into learning and teaching practice? Students are paying huge amounts of money for their time at universities where traditional teaching methods are still evident and VLE resemble repositories. Lets take a fresh look at the TEL people what we do because it looks a lot like learning design + TEL = the future.

Why don’t I speak French?

page of french text

Why don’t I speak French? I learned it at school and went to French night class – twice. For 10 years I car-shared with a colleague who was fluent in French. What can I show for it today other than  un, deux, trois, and Je m’appelle Sue.

There’s a connection with speaking French and my PhD.  I’m at the University of Northampton’s Postgraduate Induction week. UoN are moving to a new Waterside Campus and changing their learning and teaching. Leaving behind the traditional f2f lecture, they’re adopting a blended approach via greater use of digital tools. Sounds exciting but it would do wouldn’t it – I’m a VLE advocate and at risk of extinction. There aren’t many of us left.

I’ve met my PhD supervisors; Ale Armellini and Ming Nie. Ale is the Director of the Institute for Learning and Teaching in HE and both Ale and Ming worked at Leicester with Gilly Salmon in the days of the Media Zoo. They have digital provenance and talking to Ale is like sharing a language – in a good way. He gets what I’m doing and this doesn’t happen often.  Ale suggests learning online involves a move from literacy to competency to fluency and we should aim to be bilingual, seamlessly transferring from one environment to another. Online. Offline. Online. Bourdieu comes to mind. A habitus binary. Digital fluency as a form of cultural capital. Digital capital.

Parlez-vous francais? written in chalk on a blackboard

So why don’t I speak French? I don’t have to. I don’t want to. If I were lost in France it would be different but I’m not so I don’t.

My PhD is about technology enhanced learning (TEL). It explores how staff transfer their f2f practice to online environments. Based on my TELEDA courses, it shows how resistance to VLE can be reduced by adopting immersive approaches to TEL support.

The irony is this research into digital resistance has been so difficult to home. One institution changed my role, wiping off ten years of  TEL work  and ending my TELEDA courses. Another rejected my PhD along with three years of data saying they had no supervision. It’s a year since my Thesis Whisperer debut on how supervision issues have haunted me (Know Your Limits). Ale is the first supervisor in five years to have a relevant TEL background. There’s another irony in how all these blocks on the PhD journey reinforce its message; digital divides on campus continue to separate the digital and non-digital speakers.

digital divide with a page and an ipad

The motivation for my PhD was to explore staff resistance to TEL. My approach was to put them into a digital environment and use that medium for critical reflection. I believed a supported immersive experience would make a difference. A bit like taking them to France with a phrase book and a fluent French speaker to intermediate if necessary. A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the TEL-People and how we are a unique tribe with our own territory. https://digitalacademicblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/the-invisible-tribes-and-territories-of-the-tel-people Maybe there is something about our language which I need to consider too.

dandilion growing out of parched ground

TEL-People are fluent with TEL-Speak and TEL-Beingness. We show, tell and demonstrate from our digital positions but where do we involve?  I have an ongoing battle with the use of the word ‘training’ with regard to technology. We do not train we teach. If we don’t have knowledge about how people learn then we should do.  TELEDA was built around sharing, discussion, collaboration, synthesis and critique. It was much more time and resource heavy than providing workshops and helpsheets but made a real difference to how participants changed their own TEL practices.  TELEDA was rejected just like my research has been. The buzz phrase today is digital capabilities. The Jisc model (below)is not perfect. I’d like to see digital inclusion made explicit as as one of the elements, but it’s a good enough place to explore the multiplicity of being digital in 21st century.

jisc digital capabilities model

Twice this month I’ve stood in front of rooms of teaching staff and no one has heard of it. I would suggest TEL-People are using a language which is only spoken by a minority. Yet our role is to encourage the majority to change how they teach.  We need to ask more critical questions about what we do. We work in institutions of higher education but how well do we apply the rules of teaching and learning to our own TEL practices? Should we be looking to the teaching of languages for ideas? Meaningful adoption of change requires a cultural shift and here governance plays a part. Without it there is no impetus for change. I would learn French if I had to, just as staff at Northampton are turning to the digital because their current ways of working are changing. It’s a dramatic move and one I’ll be watching with interest.

image showing python programming language

In the meantime I’ll take back to my own TEL-People the suggestion we consider a linguistic route and approach TEL as being ‘Digital’ for speakers of other languages. Rather than see pedagogical practice as being online or offline we should see it through a bi-lingual lens as Ale suggests. After all communication is at the heart of learning and teaching wherever it takes place.

‘si au début vous ne réussissez essayer somthing diffrent’


images from https://pixabay.com

simultaneous existence

planets in outer space

I have a colleague who is researching space. Not the outer space of stars or the inner space of quarks. Not the digital space of VLE or social media. This is real space. The space we exist in. The space we breath in and out, in and out…

Which raises the question – what is space? I’m not sure I’ve asked myself that before.

Space. We pass through it. Things pass through it. It’s the container in which we live and I can understand the air being of interest to a chemist or sports scientist. After all it keeps us alive but other than that it’s just the physical distance between objects – isn’t it?

diagram of distances between the sides of a triangle

How can you research space of the day-to-day kind?

It seems space has interested researchers for some time. There is Lebrevre’s Spacial Triad, Soja’s Thirdspace and Foucault’s Heterotopia. My Marx is a little rusty but I recall the notion of capital blurring measures of space where technologies enable the crossing of traditional boundaries of time and place – thereby compressing them. As in McLuhan’s global village and the virtual spaces of the internet. I think. Then there’s the liminal space of thresholds, the space between concepts and worlds and one of my favourites – the transient space of hotels and airports which we pass through on our way to and from different locations.

It seems space can be both physical and conceptual.

diagram of theoretical quarks

How often do we stop to think about the characteristics of the spaces within and between the places we inhabit?  Have you ever thought of space as socially constructed with inherent meanings which we replicate and reinforce, absorbing them without even being conscious of it. For social scientists interested in the origins of attitudes and behaviors, researching space may hold intriguing clues.

So what is the difference between the space I inhabit at work and the space I operate in online. Digital space. For me, the connected internet is a place/space I go into. If the internet is down I’m shut out. When I’m online with colleagues we are connected much the same as if we were in the same room. Now I’m thinking about how I exist in both of them at the same time. Walk across campus and every other person (or more) is also existing simultaneously in both the real and the digital world.

open laptop with the word learning on the screen

In education development we’ve treated the virtual as something external to us and different. Applied different rules and said it requires different pedagogical approaches. But how different is it to generations born into a social media society, who are accustomed to the simultaneous existence enabled by their mobile devices?

Maybe we see the virtual as different because we have analogue roots.

Maybe, instead of highlighting the differences between the two types of space ,we should be looking at the similarities instead.


I may need a bigger biscuit tin!

biscuit tin

Determinist approaches to technology continue to dominate strategic thinking. Buy it, build it and learning will happen. Technology is still seen as the answer to widening participation, internationalisation, changes to the DSA, transition, alumni, you name it technology will be spoken of as the solution. This is in spite of a trail of failed projects and broken ideas across the sector. We must learn from the past and not ignore it. Technology simply cannot exist in isolation from the people who use it – not just pay for and provide support for – but who are the users i.e. learners and teachers. With technology comes the need for investing in digital capabilities and confidence but this message is still struggling to get itself heard.

dig tech pixabay

I’ve been at Hull for nine months. Its nearly the end of the 15/16 academic year. I’m looking backwards, reflecting on the Hull journey and forwards to what is to come. My challenges at Hull include developing a digital capabilities framework for learning and teaching as well as supporting the big three (pedagogically speaking) investments; Canvas, Panopto and Pebblepad.

dig ed 1

No one automatically knows how to use new digital tools. I’ve been working with learning technology for some time but new platforms still require ‘time to learn’ while even more demanding is the head space it takes to grasp all the different ways they can support disciplines and levels. This is where technology advisers, education developers, academic staff and students can benefit from sitting together in the same room. We need to talk!

Hull have recognised the need for investment in the TEL team but the bigger problem is the digital capabilities learning curve. All VLE requires a broad understanding of digital ways of working. If you’re not a great fan of technology or a great user of the internet then expecting you to find your way around Canvas, record and edit video or build an online portfolio is a big ask. To do this in front of students is even more of a demand.

cartoon showing a person battling with a wall of a technology

My task is to find a way to not only make this seem manageable to but to recognise and reward the time it takes to develop digital confidence in the first place. It’s layered learning. The buttons-basics but also the understanding of constructivist and connectionist pedagogies, the benefits of group learning and peer review, the higher order critical thinking and reflection skills. All these can be supported by thoughtful use of technology but it won’t and can’t happen in a vacuum. It needs a community of practice and inquiry approach, at module, programme, school, faculty or institutional level. Getting people together to talk about how technology can extend and enhance learning because it can – but we need to get back to basics and ensure the baseline competencies are there in the first place.

Jisc Digital Capabilities Framework image

For the next academic year I may need a bigger biscuit tin!

plate of chocolate chip cookies

biscuit and digital technology images from https://pixabay.com 
Jisc Digital Capabilities Framework image from https://www.jisc.ac.uk/blog/thriving-in-a-connected-age-digital-capability-and-digital-wellbeing-25-jun-2015