How important is technology enhanced learning to higher education? In my experience of talking to and working with many academics and institutions, technology to enhance or engage students is very important. However, having been asked this recently I also think we should be asking: what are the challenges facing technology enhanced learning?
It is not as simple as buying in systems or adopting tools; there are many other factors that need to be taken into consideration.
For example, who gets the final say about which tools are best? And how to do we make sure the staff and students will be able to use them in the most effective way possible? Will there be training, workshops or resources? On top of that, we have to consider external pressures from places like governments and funders, and there should be some consideration for the needs of employers.
Employability is of course important, but I have to stress that enhancing learning through technology is not necessarily going to make our students 'more employable.' There are a whole bunch of other factors that influence whether or not someone is employable (ultimately it depends upon the individual), but learning in a technical environment certainly helps.
For example, The Virtual Landscape tool gives students the ability to navigate a virtual landscape from a ‘first person’ perspective. They are free to explore whilst learning how to collect, plot and interpret geological data.
If I had to choose, there are two things that stand out for me as essential for universities in order to engage effectively in the digital world.
- Resistance of engagement with new technologies and ‘cultural lag’
- The development of digital skills for the academic community (including students)
Resistance to engaging with new technologies and cultural lag
In simple terms, this happens across the board, from the senior management to students. With senior management, they don’t want to bring in something new as they don’t understand the changes happening outside of their ‘academia bubbles,’ or they may have a grasp of what they think is the ‘next big thing’ but have no interest in engaging with it themselves.
Academic staff can resist the changes. After all, they are doing what they have always done and the students are still passing, so why put in all that effort to get the same result?
I cannot say that this is true of every institution and it is not, but these attitudes are broadly in place for mainstream academic communities. Plus, there is a lack of recognition for those who do engage with change and a lack of opportunity to have a ‘safe space to fail.’
For students, despite being born into the digital, they still need support and encouragement to engage with technologies in their classes.
On both sides, the effective use of technology enhanced education requires effort. If you can give a lecture and receive a lecture with with minimal interaction, then any attempt to encourage engagement through the use of technology is bound to be met with some resistance.
However, should we be happy to accept something simply because we're used it? If we're not, how do we go about changing it?
The development of digital skills for the academic community (including students)
The need to develop digital skills for the workforce has been highlighted through initiatives such as the Tech City Partnership, who are supported by UK Government investment. They have sought to invest in the development of digital skills in the workplace. Their report highlights that digital skills development is commonly found within the workplace but that universities are behind the trend. The Digital Skills Taskforce has also highlighted that over 90% of jobs in the UK require at least ‘basic digital literacies.’
With this in mind, it could be argued that universities have an obligation to ensure that the graduates that they send out to the workforce have a suitable range of skills for employability in order to be global graduates and digital users. However, despite the variety of initiatives to highlight these essential skills and considerable funds to drive ideas across the sector (JISC Projects, 2008; JISC Guides, 2015), there is still resistance to the use of technology enhanced learning within academia.
It has long been known that students emulate the use of the technology that they have been shown during their studies, so it is essential that academic staff support the use of technology for learning by developing their own skills to enhance their teaching. (JISC Projects, 2008).
We use technology to enhance and replicate existing teaching methods or activities, not to 'transform' education (Herold, 2015; Laurillard, 2013*). There is so much potential for technology enhanced learning to support the development of the digital skills craved by employers (HM Government, 2016), but the disconnect between academia and employers' needs has remained the one constant.
The good news is that there are pockets of enthusiasts, and they are supported by external organisations like The Association for Learning Technology (ALT) and the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). who provide research and information to support digital technologies for education and research.
The problem isn't whether tech enchanced learning works; the research is stacked in its favour. The real question is: how do we go about implementing it in the mainstream?
* Laurillard, D. (2013). Foreword to the First Edition. In H. Beetham & R. Sharpe (Eds.), Rethinking Pedagogy for a digital age: Designing for 21st century learning (2nd ed.) (pp. xix–xxi). New York: Routledge.