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HEi-think: Don't bolt on new technology and expect it to improve learning

As a new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute calls for HE institutions to embrace new technology, Ed Foster, Student Engagement Manager in the Centre for Academic Development & Quality at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) , and Jane McNeil, Director of Academic Development at NTU, warn that technology alone cannot improve learning.

 

“It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” Is your educational technology really transformational, or just a distraction?

The educational technology sector promises much to the higher education manager. Technology promises to cut costs, engage students and, with the growth of big data, give game-changing new insights about students.

However, everyone who commissions, implements or uses educational technology needs to remind themselves periodically of the Gartner hype cycle. For every successful innovation that benefits student learning, such as virtual learning environments, there are others that fail to live up to our expectations, like MOOCs (at least not yet). Universities risk spending vast amounts of money on products that look great, but don’t fundamentally improve learning. So how do institutions make good decisions about technology?

A new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute Rebooting learning for the digital age: What next for technology-enhanced higher education? offers a useful view across the educational technology landscape, and makes seven recommendations for how the sector’s use of technology might change in the next few years. The report explores the potential for technology to enhance the curriculum, the possibilities for learning analytics, and the relevance of technology to the Teaching Excellence Framework. It also comments on the organisational requirements needed to realise the opportunities presented.

“Rebooting learning” offers sensible recommendations for using technology to transform the educational landscape. Our own institution, Nottingham Trent University, has adopted many of these practices. We use active learning widely, for example the flipped learning approach SCALE-UP is used by around a hundred academics, right across the institution. The University first implemented learning analytics in partnership with the technology company, Solutionpath, in 2013. In 2015-16, 91 per cent of all NTU students used the NTU Student Dashboard. These are two highly successful, technology-supported endeavours, both cited in “Rebooting learning”.

One of the things we have learned is that there are limitations of looking at technological change through a technology lens. For example, active learning and use of technology are not synonymous. That’s an important distinction; it is the tutors and the students who make it work.

Technology can create affordances, but the real work lies in developing the curriculum and pedagogy. There are many documented cases of shiny new rooms fitted out with technology, which have no impact at all on teaching practices and, presumably, learning. Technology is an enabler and has been cited as the attraction for many of the lecturers who participated in our early SCALE-UP pilots. However, these same colleagues report that it is the increased interaction between peers and tutor in class, as well as greater student engagement with materials before class, which has led to improved learning outcomes.

Similarly, as we discussed in our previous Media FHE blog, the information provided by learning analytics does not automatically lead to sustained changes in student behaviour. Our current research is showing that some students are using the resource to manage their own engagement with learning. However, for other students, a skilled, informed intervention by a personal tutor or other professional is still essential. Learning analytics can provide timely insights, but the institution still needs to invest in the staff and resources to act on those insights.

Everyone knows that technology-led approaches are rarely helpful. Everyone forgets this in the hype over the next new technology. “Rebooting learning” reminds us that technology helps most when it is ‘designed-in’ to an institution’s overall approach.  So, if we may return to the wisdom of Bruce Lee:

“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add specifically what is your own.”

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