A seminar on roadblocks to using technology-enhanced learning

Photo of sign saying 'Road closed'

Road closed for Edinburgh playing out

I attended a really interesting presentation this morning by Joel Smith on research he conducted with Laruen Herckis on the ‘Complex Barriers to Instructional Innovation with Technology’ at Carnegie Mellon University in the US. The seminar did two things which made me very glad I attended. Firstly, the research findings aligned closely to my own research, even though their disciplinary approaches (philosophy and anthropology) are different, which is always encouraging. Secondly, it reinforced to me the importance of educators having space and support to talk about, and develop, their understandings of teaching, before conversations about specific methods or technologies are discussed. I want to facilitate these very conversations and this is the reason I did a PhD in this area, and why I want to do more teaching. It’s nice when a seminar validates your life choices.

Their final report is yet to be published, but you can read about it briefly here. They identified four ‘roadblocks’ to educators at their institution using technology for teaching and learning.

1. Collaborations often failed because of miscommunication around priorities. This can be avoided if there is someone, a ‘champion’, to co-ordinate and clarify communication.

I recognise a lot of my previous work as a learning technologist in this point; I often found myself doing the ‘chasing up’ emails with academic staff, detailing actions to be taken and expected time-frames. Without that, things often fell apart.

2. Institutional structures and processes are out of sync with individuals careers, institutional support for teaching, technology infrastructure and global changes in technology.

Yes, there is never really the time to take a step back and dig deeper into teaching. In previous roles I’ve had, there have been years when there was never a good time to take annual leave, as all non-teaching time was spent developing online teaching content or staff development. Joel spoke about how achieving tenure was a priority for educators in his institution and, until that point, they could not afford examine their own teaching. There is also a slow/fast mismatch between higher education and technology (there is a really interesting examination of this by Land and Bayne 2008), although I think anyone working at a HEI these days is most likely reconciled to the inevitability of restructuring, change, etc. The slowness of higher education can mean wide-scale adoption of technology is a deliberate act, so perhaps hasty mistakes are avoided. On the other hand, the look-and-feel of many VLEs can give the sense of being in a time-machine. I don’t really believe that universities need to be on top of all the new technologies, but I do think they have a responsibility to be ahead on the big issues like data use, ethics and ways technology and human behaviour are enmeshed and changing each other.

3. Concepts of ‘good teaching’ held by educators are extremely strong and difficult to displace, even in the face of evidence-based alternatives. 

I think it is even more than this – we can hold two contradictory ideas of ‘good teaching’ as simultaneously true. As humans we tend to compartmentalise, and I have seen educators who put teaching in their discipline in one box, and put teaching in all other disciplines in another box and never the twain pedagogies shall meet. Examples include remarks about discussion boards, MCQs, reflective writing ‘not working in my subject’. Also, changing (or really expanding) these mental models of ‘good teaching, takes time. Again, the extended support, or indeed provocations, from colleagues to help this happen need to be planned for and resourced.

4. The academics who took part in this research had strong identities as teachers and their actions were strongly influenced by student satisfaction. This led to a reluctance to change their teaching or adopt new methods for fear of alienating their students.

One subjects of this study was quote on their desire not to embarrass themselves in front of students. In my research, a number of lecturers stated similar concerns, often with technology eliciting strongly negative emotions. The point about teacher identity and perceived threats from technology were also present in my research, although some were more comfortable embracing external influences on their teacher identity.

Their recommendations for addressing these roadblocks were that polices and practices needed to facilitate conversations to uncover educators’ mental models. At the end I asked Joel a question on how to have those important conversations about conceptions of teaching at an earlier stage of the process (i.e. before decisions are being made about technology). His answer was that university administrators have understand this and put in place procedures to enable this happen. I couldn’t agree more. We are fortunate in countries like Ireland and the UK that universities provide

professional development and qualifications in teaching, particularly to new staff. However, I can see that in the 10 years since I obtained my PgCert in teaching, educational research and thinking has moved on. It would be good to see policies put in place to sustain and develop these conversations about conceptions of teaching throughout an educators’ career.

The role of resistance in learning

I’m reading Contemporary Theories of Learning (2009), edited by Knud Illeris which is a series of essays about learning by theorists. As usual with a stimulating book like this I have to put it down every few pages and sort out my own thoughts.

In Illeris’ own chapter, he talks about barriers to learning which break-down essentially into those barriers which are a defence and those which are resistance. It is the latter that I am most interested in i.e those which is caused by the learning situation itself because “often when one does not just accept something, the possibility of learning something significantly new emerges.”

As an advisor to lecturing staff on the use of technology-enhanced learning, I have had experiences where colleagues have resisted or even rejected changing their approach to teaching. But now I come to think of it, some of those who had the most defensive reactions are the ones who have travelled furthest in adopting technology. I know the theory that involving emotions can aid learning, but negative emotions? I had only thought before that antithetical reactions to my training or advice would lead to entrenched views but maybe together with staff who react badly we can create, synthesise, something new?

So would it be possible to deliberately manufacture resistance in, say, a staff training session and what would that look like? How about asking them to discuss a provocative statement such as “In the future teachers will be obsolete”. Perhaps this is a bit loose but it has a challenging emotion connection for most lecturers.