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.

Post-PhD Reflections: Part Three – Revisiting My PhD Digital Toolkit

Post-it notes

Image by Dean Hochman (CC BY 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/ebt15q

When I re-read my original post My PhD Digital Toolkit I am struck by my quest to use “dead time” productively. Admittedly, there was quite a bit travelling between Edinburgh and Glasgow in my first year which I felt had to be put to good use, but the anxiety around time spent on doing other things was probably centred around inefficient use of time when I should have been working (see Post-PhD Reflections: Part Two – The Hours and Minutes for proof that I could faff). As the years went by I learned to gift myself the time spent travelling as relaxation, so I would instead listen to podcasts or nap. Like most of my relationships with technology, I like to play and experiment for a bit, but then I get serious and streamline – anything not absorbed seamlessly part of my work-flow gets thrown out.

So, a quick review. What were the essential, use (nearly) every day hardware and software?

A lightweight, quick-to-boot laptop, so I never had any excuse not to take it with me nor any excuse not to open it up and do some work.

This was an expensive bit of kit, but four years later it’s still going strong. I used it almost daily and it’s lightness meant that I could chug it around everywhere, and could still carry notebooks, books, lunch, water bottle and coffee flask in one backpack. I learned early on that working at home didn’t suit me, so I would tramp to a few of the university libraries around Edinburgh to work. I used an external mouse and, when the need arose to block out background noise I used large closed-cup headphones for either music, white noise (SimplyNoise) or Coffitivity.

Top software:

Evernote: Everything went in here and as it added OCR to PDFs, it became invaluable for searching through my notes. I transcribed my interviews into Evernote (encrypted, obvs) and most importantly, typed up rough notes on everything I read. Clipping directly from a browser was great for grabbing important pieces of text on the fly.

Dropbox: Syncing files across devices and backing them up to the cloud = invaluable. I did end up going for a subscription on this. I also continued to use it to store my Mendeley files and database.

Speaking of Mendeley, this also worked well for me and the final dreaded pull-together of references for my thesis wasn’t that painful, though I had been quite thorough in making sure references were correct as I went. I had a few instances where I accidentally had Mendeley open on more than one device at once, which meant the entire database had to be re-configured which was a pain, but worth the effort. In general I opened PDFs stored in Mendeley in Adobe Acrobat as the Mendeley highlighting and note-taking tools were only visible within Mendeley and I wanted to be able to access these outside of the software sometimes – this was particularly the case when Mendeley only existed on Android as 3rd party apps, since rectified.

I worked with Scrivener for about a year, but my laptop was very high res and Scrivener wasn’t optimised for 3200×1800, so menu items were impossible to read. Scrivener’s strong point, being able to re-arrange and map out the structure of a large document, was only marginally useful for me and I soon decided to work directly in Word. Word’s heading styles allowed me to navigate between sections quickly and Mendeley’s plug-in meant that I could pop in citations as I wrote. I never quite liked that what I was seeing in Scrivener wasn’t the final look and feel.

There were two other tools which I picked up and used as needed along the way. The first is KabanFlow which helped me plan and keep me on-task with time-consuming, routine tasks (see image below). For example, I used it for tracking myself while transcribing my data collection interviews and used the Pomodoro timer functionality to stay focused and take breaks every 30 minutes to get up and stretch. The second, slightly similar tool was Workflowy. While I sometimes get depressed looking at to-do lists which I’ll never get to the end of, this is a deceptively versatile list tool was a dumping ground for everything I needed to remember. I could go for weeks without opening it, but other times it became vital for checking that I was covering everything, particularly when pulling everything together towards the end.

Screenshot of KabanFlow Pomodoro statistics

The final piece of technology which I shouldn’t omit is (of course) the post-it note. Most mornings I would write everything I wanted to do on a post-it note (including nice, fun things) and keep it in my eye-line. I didn’t always stick to it, and sometimes it ran to more than one, or even two, notes, but the reward of crossing things off with a pencil never failed to thrill.



I can code

This is a response which I wrote to a blog from last November by the inimitable Sheila MacNeill entitled Why don’t I code?

Coding engenders a binary thinking which can extend beyond the code itself; it either works or there are bugs. What you are aiming for is to be bug-free. But this can lead to not considering the bigger questions.

It’s quite a relief to exist in a bubble where problems are puzzles that require a fix. What’s more, finding that fix is a pleasure; when it goes well, coding is hugely enjoyable. I think this may contribute to coders encouraging every one to learn to code.

Non-coders are hugely important – by asking the questions that coders sometimes forget to think about. By getting coders to explain why, by demanding.

Those conversations are important. Coders are fixers – every problem is an opportunity. But just because you have the skill-set to fix, it doesn’t mean that you have the skill-set to analyse the bigger problem. Sometimes it is better that the problem is framed by someone who doesn’t have a clue what the answer could be.

I learned to code because I thought I wanted some kind of mastery over machines. Now I’ve come to realise that this is actually not possible – I am sociomaterially entangled with technology and my own agency is severely compromised by auto-playing videos of cats on YouTube.

What I do have is confidence. I can take an educated guess as to what anyone is talking about in most areas of technology. (As an aside, as a woman, somehow I felt the need to acquire a masters in computer science to exercise any authority in an area in which I’d been a hobbiest since childhood.) Learning to code trained me in systematic trouble-shooting and close reading of text. This of course is applicable to lots of areas of life, not just software development. Deciphering emails from colleagues is the first example that pops into my head.

Since I wrote this response I see that commentators on Sheila’s blog have come up with similar ideas about the dangers of losing critical thinking when the focus is on getting everyone to code. But there is a balance to be stuck. Yes, people have specialisms and everyone does not need to code, but the mysterious black box of technology needs to be made more accessible in its meaning and impact for society. This doesn’t have to occur at code level, this can happen through conversations between us all.