Technology in HE: What is the fuss?

Our project aims to a) break down barriers between academics and Technology-Enhanced Learning (TEL) – it’s not a bolt-on! and b) enhance institutional policies on using TEL. Following on from our recent post on some of the barriers to TEL (4t November 2013), we ask, first of all, whether technology is needed in HE and what is the fuss regarding TEL all about …

Kirkwood & Price (2013) comment that TEL is problematic – it conflates both the need to reflect on adapted teaching practices, and the implication that somewhere along the line it has actually enhanced learning, so this suggests the need for evaluation and measuring the ‘enhanced’ learning, and if there is evidence of ‘enhancement’, then what exactly is this and the extent to which the ‘enhancement’ to learning has contributed to the holistic development of a student and their experience at an institution.

There are an abundance of literature on technology and its use in Higher Education, specialisation courses in TEL including professional doctorates exploring the uptake of TEL in education. Together with the abundant research and the changing expectation of employment and the globalisation of many professions, universities and academics are now facing a challenge of adapting to new ways of teaching and coping with the different expectations of learners. Ever more so with the rise in tuition fees, universities are expected to equipping graduates to compete in today’s demanding, highly competitive employment sector. Going to university is not just about the experience of being a student, and gaining a holistic education, but it is more so about getting that dream job after the course. From an institutional perspective, this is good news – there is a lot of opportunities to become a leader in delivering innovative Higher Education – Distance education, sophisticated learning environments online and the opportunity to collaborate with research partners from around the world (through international campuses or flying faculties) are just some of the transformational benefits that universities are embracing.

The authors of the project submit that to date, technology has had a significant impact on higher education and no doubt, it will continue to do so. Technological innovation will have a major influence on how academics teach, how institutions attract students through their teaching and learning offer, design of curriculum, adoption of an effective all-encompassing pedagogical framework for online learning, what institutions can offer students with regards to skill development, student experience including opportunities for personalised learning spaces, reflective learning and an overall holistic and enhanced student experience.

The questions here are: Do academics agree that TEL does in fact play a large part in the design and planning of curriculum design and to what extent. How do institutions support to uptake of TEL – should separate policies on teaching and learning through eLearning frameworks be drafted for implementation or should faculties and academics be given a wide margin of appreciation in deciding whether to embed TEL and if so to what extent – what is the best and most effective practice? How can we (as academic leaders) encourage and demonstrate that TEL does in fact have a significant place in curriculum development and in quality enhancement of programme design – and how can we support those involved in quality enhancement work to understand, engage and adopt such practices?

We must acknowledge and embrace that HE is now globalising – learning online is popular more than ever and universities (in order to ensure a sustainable future alongside carrying out other institutional missions and objectives) must recognise and adapt (quickly) to the changing nature of education expectations. Most institutions offer online courses and most will view online learning as a key to advancing their mission, placing advanced education within reach of people who might otherwise not be able to access it. This is good news – wider access to education (benefit to the society, skilled employment and general success) developing new and lucrative) opportunities through the design of exciting and useful curriculum tailored to the needs of students/overseas market (benefit to academics to expand expertise) and expanded revenue opportunities for academic institutions (good news for institutions and their sustainability and in becoming leaders in innovative education provision).

So what are we doing about it? Do institutions have a eLearning strategy/framework explicit enough so that all stakeholders are aware of expectations and responsibilities, what we can offer students, how we can do this and how we can do this effectively whilst maintain a high standard of student experience, retention and educational goals of the course of study and in ensuring that resources and budgeting is kept at a level that is reasonable (efficient and reduce cost) – little point in making huge investments for little return. How do we balance all of these factors? Key point is how do we design an eLearning platform for online courses, how do we integrate the teaching of complex materials online, how do we retain students in an online learning environment by combating sense of isolation and creating a sense of belonging, how do we embed collaborative learning and peer support online?

At the outset, figuring out the differences between traditional campus teaching and online teaching – what are the main differences? What are the differences between the students who attend a campus and those who study online? Diversity of students – how do we tackle this?

All these questions need to be addressed at each institution and some sort of a baseline framework needs to be designed in order to (with clear awareness of expectations and limitation of what we can offer) effectively and robustly design suitable eLearning environments with a commitment to advanced technologies. Institutions need to ask tough questions – policy related questions on teaching and learning. Policies can provide a framework for operation, an agreed-upon set of rules that explain all participants’ roles and responsibilities. Policies on embedding TEL needs to feature various stakeholders: academic, geographic service area, governance, resources management, legal and student support services.

From a pedagogical perspective, how we teach will need to shift – instead of focusing on rote learning and traditional examination (lots of literature on the ineffectiveness of this method of assessment) academics should be encouraged to focus on the application of knowledge to particular problems – and how do we do this online?

Taking this one step further – many institutions either already have international campuses or plan to open them in future years. Delivering distance education is key – and doing it effectively whilst maintaining the same best practices offered to students on local campuses is a new challenge.

It is useful to consider different types of technological tools available in the institution and then focus critically on ‘how’ and ‘why’ we use it in education, so there is a case to start with the pedagogy and principles. The extent of technology that can be used in a curriculum is therefore open to how it fits with the subject practice and with institutional objectives.

We need to also consider student needs and expectations – that includes their digital literacies and prior experiences. We might think about how we can enable greater flexibility in online learning for students, using technology. And fundamental principles of assessment and feedback for learning, and how students embed this in their practice, are also crucial. Finally, how can technology support the peer and collaborative learning that features in so much of the espoused pedagogy in HE?

We submit that technology will become interwoven into the fabric of academic life more than ever, and therefore there is a case for the adoption of TEL in HE courses – and an effective adoption practice is necessary.

The barriers identified (blog post 4thNovember) – rising costs, the need to avoid technological obsolescence, insufficient resources, a lack of adequate learning and technology staff for support impede the adoption of new technologies, need attention with careful discussions taking place at institutional level on how budgets are allocated for TEL, deciding whether existing learning technologies show adequate promise to deliver their eLearning mission or if new investments need to be made and how and on what and tacking how TEL can be supported at an institutional level and at an academic level. To the extent that barriers to online teaching can be identified, analyzed, and policies changed where necessary to mitigate them, policies and framework explicitly on eLearning/TEL would be useful in developing an online learning environment.

And now we leave you with more questions than answers/solutions. However, we hope that these questions will prompt you to carefully consider and reflect on your own practice of TEL within your curriculum design, do you have any best practices you would like to share? Can you do more with TEL that will benefit your students’ learning and development? Using the existing technology resources your institutions has on offer, could you offer a personalised learning space? If you use BlackBoard or Moodle, could you design an online peer support system for your programme to assist students outside of classroom teaching times? Could you do more with these learning systems?

1 thought on “Technology in HE: What is the fuss?

  1. A fascinating post. This is such a rapidly changing field. What current students need and expect may be different from those still at school. However, having first thought that MOOCs etc would be hugely disruptive to the HE model, I’m now not so sure. Like any ‘free’ on-line facility, there needs eventually to be a cost model built around it, I can’t see how MOOCs in their current form can be sustainable for any contributing institution. However, the blended approach of on-line and in person learning (as modelled for decades by Open University) combines the yin and the yang of quiet study and interactive application.
    As one PhD student said to me recently, “I have plenty of knowledge but not so many practical skills. I need to put my learning in to practice and I can only do that when I’m working with others.”

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