#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


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The problem is not ignorance, it’s preconceived ideas

https://pixabay.com/en/binary-code-man-display-dummy-face-1327512/
https://pixabay.com/en/binary-code-man-display-dummy-face-1327512/

Data is never neutral.  This is my social science background talking. It’s made me suspicious! Or should that be critical?  Not everyone agrees but I’ve always distrusted the ability of stats to tell the full story.

This week it was announced Hans Rosling has died. A sign of the internet age is the videos we leave behind. This link to a TED Talk (2006) The best stats you’ve ever seen begins with his trademark introduction ‘I’m a statistician – No – don’t switch off!

Rosling set out to show the changing world through the visualisation of data.  The concept was simple. Most good ideas are. Publically funded statistics exist but are not presented in ways which are educational and accessible. Rosling founded the Gapminder organisation to create software linking data with presentation tools, thereby making it visible and searchable or in this own words – liberated. Helped more than a little by a narration owing more to a sports commentary than traditional academia, graphs have never been so entertaining or eye-opening. Mission accomplished.

Hans Rosling presenting on a stepladder

Over the years Rosling moved from overhead projector, with his trademark stepladder for reaching the high parts, to more sophisticated forms of digital touch screen representation. The technology was wizzy but somehow wasn’t the same.

hans-rosling-digital

I saw Rosling present a couple of times. Mostly on the international health and social care arena where he spoke about the world and what really matters;  fertility rates, child mortality, family planning, distribution of income and the power of social change. There were always a number of key messages. Data is better than you think; there may be  an uncertainty margin but the differences revealed are larger than any weakness. Data can be structured e.g. revealing the importance of context an highlighting diversity, sometimes within single countries. Most relevant to educationalists, Rosling maintained problems are not caused by ignorance but through preconceived ideas.

USB PLUGS
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Data is big business and higher education has not escaped from the lure of using stats to review and refine the student experience. Within  institutions the VLE dashboard and NSS (National Student Survey) have been used for some time to wave red flags. Now the TEF is bringing data analytics to the forefront. The relationship between NSS scores, figures from HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) and DELI  (Destination of Leavers from Higher Education) and teaching excellence is still open for debate but there’s no denying how ‘Learning Analytics’ is now positioned centre-stage.

All my initial reservations about statistical data have come back. It’s one thing to collect and group figures into charts and tables but useful interpretation depends on wider issues such as identifying what you want to know and why you want to know it. Counting the times a student logs onto a VLE or walks into the library tells us little about the nature of their activity or quality of engagement.

digital number display
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The biggest concern is the rhetoric. The Bricks to Clicks report tells us data has “enormous potential to improve the student experience at university” while the Jisc report Learning Analytics in Higher Education offers analytics as a tool with many functions. These include quality assurance and quality improvement, boosting retention rates and assessing and acting upon differential students outcomes – to mention a few.

We’ve been here before in the early days of education technology which promised much with regard to enhancement but with little evidence of improvement. Deterministic approaches see technology as the agent of change rather than focusing on the cultural context in which it’s positioned. Today it seems there’s an increasing risk of data being seen through a similar determinist lens.

magnifying glass
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Education developers and researchers want teaching interventions which produce the most effective learning environments. As it stands, I’m not convinced the collection, measurement and interpretation of all this data for the TEF will produce any meaningful information about what we really want to know. The Learning Analytics movement needs someone like Hans Rosling to challenge preconceived ideas and find ways to interpret data which are innovative, useful and accessible.

It would also be worth asking if the data we have is from the most appropriate sources in the first place.