Technology and Learning: #change11

On to Tony Bates’ week at the Change MOOC — almost catching up! Tony’s topic is ‘Managing Technology to Transform Teaching’ It’s not really an area that concerns me much now that I am working more explicitly as a researcher of workplace and informal learning. But I have worked for many years in HE contexts (and am married to someone who runs an institutional  LMS service) so I have thought in detail about many of the issues covered over the years. When I started to think about what to write for this week, I remembered that I had a half-written blogpost that would fit the bill, so here goes with that post, updated (but still with some unfinished ideas as I wanted to concentrate on writing the new blog post in a reasonable timeframe).
The university where I work is undergoing restructuring – like many in the sector –  and the changes afoot call into question the nature of the relationship between learning and teaching research and development and support units, and the University as a whole.
I’ve worked in and around L&T research and development  and support for over 15 years (mostly across institutions, with far less time working at institutional level). Much of that time has been spent focusing on technology enhanced learning (virtual and personal learning environments, simulations, computer mediated distance learning, reuse of learning materials), though I’ve also spent considerable time thinking about assessment, personal development and employability, learning design, research and teaching linkages and graduate attributes, independent learning etc.
This post began as an attempt to think through some of the lessons I have learned in that time. This then provided a catalyst for thinking about the current challenge of continuing to underpin core university functions and needs with modest resources.
Lessons Learned (there are many, but I got sidetracked having come up with two, so shall save some of the other ones for a separate post)
  • enhancing the learning experience is an insufficient driver to justify innovation. It took me a long time to learn this lesson: it is a very noble goal to want to make the learning experience better.  For years I worked on a set of tools for developing simulations which could be used to explain complex numerical models (flow of water through pipes, current in an electric circuit. The tools were undoubtedly innovative, and there was clear published evidence for the pedagogic benefit of simulations. But we always struggled to convince the teachers to really embrace these tools for teaching. At the time, we always put it down to the relatively steep learning curve to using the tools effectively, and I have even been known to speculate that the tools were too sophisticated, and the teachers unable to come up with activity designs which could benefit from using the tools. Looking back though – it was simple – for the most part, the teachers teaching the difficult concepts which might have benefited from using our tools had already worked out how to teach them – their methods may not have been innovative, but they worked – students came to classes, the teachers taught as they had taught for years (no redesign of course needed) and most of the students passed the exams at the end.
  • technology is a barrier to innovation. During my time as an educational developer, the relentless arrival of new technologies enabled the continual reinvention of the challenge of how technology can enhance the learning experience’. This was especially true in funding regimes (e.g. the successive generations of tools to facilitate sharing of educational resources, or the quest for an adaptive learning environment.)
(and the blog post initially tailed off here as I realised it had grown into something quite big and didn’t really fit as a blog post). I had some sketchy notes for ‘solutions’, or positions and practices which educational developers should adopt. Without elaborating, here are the ideas I’d had:
  • understand stakeholders and their motivations (academic staff, senior management, quality).
  • articulate the role of L&T units – for example agreeing a definition of innovation.
  • understand drivers (short and long term, map drivers to stakeholders)(assessment load, competitiveness, )
  • understand apparent drivers which do not translate into sustained change (innovation, external and long term trends)
  • understand barriers (inherent disciplinary practices and beliefs (theory practice gap in nursing, Bernsteins conformance and framing characters of different disciplines influencing when different types of intervention/teaching approach are appropriate), professional bodies specifying curriculum in nursing etc.)
  • focus effort (complement others trying to do the same thing)
  • concentrate effort where we can make a difference (induction – setting expectations, assessment, providing a relevant (authentic) learning experience)
  • set an example (active learning, academic credibility, transparent goals and simple strategy)
  • L&T units should be carefully integrated with other components of the university – disciplines, regulation (quality) (recognise that the motivations of different stakeholders may be at odds and that resolving tensions is important)
One of the tasks for this week of change11 was to read the executive summary of the book ( This summarises a set of recommendations under a number of headings (and my summary of the recommendations in brackets following each):
  • Institutional planning and Strategy (prioritise and reward innovation, set long term goals to exploit technology (e.g. flexible and cost efficient access, personalised learning, authentic learning, digital literacies)
  • Leadership (leaders should communicate importance of technology in transforming T&L, clear governance for technology decision-making and policies)
  • Planning at programme level (encourage clear vision of how programs will use technology to enhance provision)
  • Organisational structures (high level technology committee to set strategic goals and prorities. formalise links between l&T support and disciplines.)
  • Quality Assurance and Evaluation (use equivalent procedures to assure quality of f2f, online and blended programs)
  • Financial management (don’t just add technology to old-processes, understand the relationship between teaching model and cost of delivery to allow best options to be determined)
  • Organisational culture and barriers to change (formalise teaching skills as a baseline upon which teaching with technology can build, educate senior officers across the organisation to be cognisant with technology issues and expertise, investment in technology to support innovation in teaching will be wasted if innovation isn’t incentivised properly).
  • Roles for government (govt should provide strategic leadership, use funding to drive innovation)
I think there is much overlap between bates’ recommendations and the suggestions I had come up with in my original post. Clearly, we were thinking at different levels, but  the commonalities are there – reward innovation, take a strategic view (including quality, curriculum design etc.), think broader than disciplines to reflect the world beyond academia.

Author: Colin Milligan

Learning researcher based at Glasgow Caledonian University, and living in beautiful West Stirlingshire.

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