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.

What I learned working on an e-learning helpline for students and lecturers

Life ring

‘Help’ by Neil Turner CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/b9JrVF

After I completed my PhD I took a six-month contract in a large, well-resourced university doing ‘e-learning support’. The work was very similar to parts of my previous learning technologist roles elsewhere, but the scale of everything was much bigger. Additionally, it was my first time working within a department with no academic or teaching remit and the culture and language around the use of technology reflected that.

The university provides and supports an impressive array of digital products for teaching and learning: VLEs (more than one), assessment tools (including text matching and peer assessment), classroom polling, digital exams, lecture capture, video streaming, virtual classrooms, digital reading lists and eportfolios, to name a few. For each tool there was a named individual in my team with the expertise and vendor relationship to deal with unusual problems. I was impressed with the commitment my colleagues showed for providing the best possible service to the end users. Requests for support came to me through the call management software, so all my communication with people who needed help was through typed messages. It functioned as a very efficient, transparent system where the busy-ness  of the queue could be seen at a glance and calls passed between individuals as needed.

I can’t put an accurate figure on it, but would appear that the majority of lecturers were using these tools by rote. Courses were rolled over from semester to semester, assessment dropboxes set up as they were previously and, if there were discussions about why certain tools were being used, there weren’t happening within my earshot. What’s more, courses all had named secretaries who were responsible for student enrolments and administration of assessments. So, for example, a course secretary would follow a checklist of how to set-up a Turnitin dropbox. Again, a highly efficient process which frees up the time of the academic, but for every box ticked or not ticked within the set-up screen there are pedagogical implications, yet the lecturer has no input and probably little or no awareness that there are such choices available. And this is before any discussions take place about whether Turnitin is actually an appropriate tool to be using for assessment.

The increasing ease-of-use of software makes it more accessible and efficient to use if there is little or no learning curve. However, this very ease-of-use means that we don’t have to think about it much and this can be a problem. Teaching with digital technologies should be a considered and constantly re-evaluated process. Indeed, my PhD research found that the majority of lecturers were constantly balancing the costs and benefits to them and their students when they used digital tools. But if the the tools are practically friction-free to use, or someone else is there to do the legwork of setting things up or solve the problems, then the educator is at a remove from the consequences of using them, and therefore from thinking about deeper implications.

I believe that education in all disciplines should explicitly incorporate pedagogy into the curriculum. I also believe that this should include directly addressing digital citizenship, starting with educators role-modelling appropriate digital citizenship. This can be a simple as an announcement outlining why they made choices to use (or not to use) certain digital tools for teaching and learning. In doing so, they would be encouraging their learners to think about the choices that we make about technology every day. It could even be the first step to becoming an open education practitioner.