#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.