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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The VLE and Machines of Loving Grace #nationalpoetryday

grey robot looking at a red flower

Yesterday was #nationalpoetryday. When I think the digital in the poetry world it’s Richard Brautigan’s All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace which comes to mind. Brautigan offers a vision of a cybernetic future from 1997. This is the year  the report from the Committee of Inquiry into the Future of Higher Education was published. In Brautignan’s cybernetic ecology, machines have freed us from labour and watch us live the Utopian dream. In the Dearing Report, the VLE represented a more efficient and effective future, internationalizing higher education, reaching the parts people couldn’t reach, crossing traditional barriers of time and distance and so on and on and on…

It didn’t really happen did it?

The internet bought us the global village as predicted by McLuhan at a time when television represented cutting edge technology. Now we have the internet. Social media has given a voice to everyone with access. VLE have revolutionised higher education – or maybe not.

In Our Digital Capabilities Journey Kerry Pinny describes a 25% response rate to the Jisc Discovery Tool at her university. When I piloted this self-diagnostic digital capabilities tool earlier this year, a professional services department achieved over 80% response rate (not the TEL-Team or ICT I hasten to add) whereas a Faculty scored so low it was meaningless. 25% would have been a dream. Kerry asks how to reach the other 75%. I wonder this too. The V in VLE seems to have passed so many people by.

open laptop with the word learning on the screen

Liz Bennett @LizBennett1 and Sue Folley @SueFolley from the University of Huddersfield facilitated a D4 Learning Design workshop at Hull this week. The focus was digital capabilities but in a covert, through the back door, approach. Using Appreciative Inquiry and focusing positive rather than negative or deficit thinking, we constructed learning activities which blended face-to-face and online interaction. Inevitably the discussion turned to VLE adoption and the question of reaching the unreachables. I’m never sure whether to laugh and cry at how we need subterfuge to trap people into dealing with VLE but was also struck by Sue’s comment that everyone across the sector has the same problem.

Its nearly 20 years since the Dearing Report. What ever we’ve been doing, in that time it isn’t working.

panning drawing with pencil and ruler

Both Dearing’s Committee and poet Brautigan saw technology as the future. Well, the future has arrived and I don’t see the VLE as having made a great deal of difference. There are pockets of excellent practice but overall the dominant model of use remains a digital despository document. Video may be more prevalent but ultimately it’s supplemented read this with watch this. How about do something with this instead?

Postmodernism is vanishing into the wings. Learning analytics is stepping centre stage, bringing Big Data with all its positivist baggage of targets, metrics and ranking with it. SCoT also seems in danger of disappearing. The Social Construction of Technology suggested the development of machines was dependent on the people who used them. The potential of the machine for change was not enough. In the 1960’s, McLuhan told us how new technology would replicate existing practice and in the 1980’s Bijker and Pinch were predicting new technologies would not determine human action but be shaped by it instead.

If a higher education is the passive transmission of knowledge, memorised and regurgitated for assessment, the VLE is perfect. We have made it into what we want it to be.

The question is – where do we go from here?

red question mark on a keyboard


All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.


Image sources