Technology: the wrong conversations

Technology is people. If we were saying (and doing) the right things technology would be embedded in teaching by now. You wouldn’t need people like me.  I have spent years encouraging and supporting staff to use technology in their teaching. I have delivered and watched others deliver ‘technology’ training, CPD, presentations etc. with varying success.  Something isn’t working. I would suggest our conversations are wrong.

In his latest post, It’s an extra, but does it need to be?James Clay questions the perception some staff have of technology being an extra rather than embedded part of their practice. He suggests that

Part of this has to be down to the way in which staff are introduced to or trained in the use of learning technologies. James Clay 2017

I think its important to acknowledge that there are a lot of complex issues that have limited the extent to which technology has been embedded in teaching practice. I agree with James that the way I, and people like me, present technology can be a barrier. Our conversations are wrong. So how should we speak to staff? What I have I learnt?

Technology is all about people!

Smarter people than me have been banging this drum for some time.

Digital is about people, it is about a set of behaviours; it is about a perception of others and self; it is another way of being present with those around us. Lawrie Phipps (2016) Presence, Digital, Well-Being, People

Donna Lanclos and Dave White discussed the humanity of technology in their keynote Being Human is Your Problem #altc at the Association of Learning Technology Conference in 2016.  To paraphrase technology is not the answer. Technology will not fix human practices. It will not fix problems. It will not solve everything. Watch their keynote here.

Technology is just a thing. It’s a piece of apparatus. We use it to meet our ends. If it has no use to us we do not use it. If people don’t use technology then it becomes another cool thing someone made. It is only useful when people are using it. If you do not consider the people in technology then you are doomed to failure.

Start with what they want to achieve

There was a time I would go and speak to academics and just list all the technologies they could use. That didn’t result in a great deal of success. So instead I began by asking questions.

  • Why were they speaking to me?
  • What was driving them to explore technology?
  • What was it they hoped technology would achieve for them?
  • What are the problems they are trying to resolve?
  • What are they hoping to improve?

The list goes on. I have found I am better able to make suggestions based on their answers. I am made aware of any prejudices, preconceived ideas, misinformation, attitudes and feelings that they have about technology. I understand their motives. I know if they are being realistic. I know what level of experience and skills they have. I know if its a mandate from above. I know if they’re receptive or resentful. At its most basic it shows staff that I am interested in their work and I respect them. I am interested in their opinion. I am interested in their ambitions and am here to help them achieve them. I am not here to shove technology down their throat and make them feel inferior. I am here to enable them to do want they want to do because that is my job.

Make it relevant (context)

There is a lot you need to understand before you can truly make good suggestions. Even the most basic application of technology to teaching should be considered carefully. There are a lot of variables to success, and if there is one thing you want to avoid, it’s failure.

I always like to understand how the module fits within a programme, how the students are taught, how the assessments measure learning, the skills and experience of the teaching team, what the students are like and how they teach their subject. There’s a lot more I could list but that gives you an idea. I try to know as much as I can. It’s impossible to know everything about the programmes you support, I am rubbish at maths but I don’t need to know anything about maths to help them. I need to know about learning and how to enhance that in ways that are relevant to their discipline. I am not there to comment on their content. We need to adapt everything to the particular context of the person we are speaking to. “Different strokes” and all that.

The more I know the better suggestions I can make and the more relevant they will be. If I can make relevant suggestions that will bring tangible benefits to the learning of their students they will listen. If I suggest something that worked somewhere else without taking in to account their unique needs I may as well prepare for failure.

Get to know them

Not everyone can use technology. If I had a pound for every time someone says “students/staff know how to do that” I would be a billionaire. That attitude is wrong. It’s a lazy and dangerous assumption. What do we say when designing a teaching session? We say we should leave time to get to know the students previous experience, their likes, dislikes, abilities and skills. Why are we not doing the same with our staff? If we know nothing about someone how can we adapt our conversations to most effectively reach them? We need to speak directly to them, to empathise with them and share in their aspirations and fears. Only once we know ‘who’ we are dealing with can we hope to truly enable and support them. Otherwise, we are speaking for the sake of it and it falls on deaf ears.

They have a lot to do

Academics have a lot to do. Their time is precious. Generally, they are looking for things that will bring maximum benefit with limited input. they do not want to spend 6 months learning how to use a piece of technology to only use it once. They also don’t want to be shown something that’s hard to access. I watched a presentation the other day where the speaker was evangelising a piece of technology that only had 2 licences for the whole school. Don’t waste their time by showing them something they can’t easily access. Show them things that will save them time, will bring tangible benefits, that they can easily access, that is easy to learn and that is easily reused. It’s better not to show people things that will take hours for them to edit every time they need to make a change.

Be sensible. Be considerate. Be realistic.

Tech vs pedagogy first

I am an advocate of the pedagogy first approach however, there is still a place for technology first. I believe pedagogy first is best because teachers don’t necessarily want their time wasted hearing about an awesome piece of technology that simply does nothing for them. I saw a presentation the other day where at no point did the person presenting say WHY you would use the software, they failed to show any examples or, even when asked directly, present any evidence of the benefits. This is technology first at its worst, “here’s a shiny thing I like, I hope you think it’s shiny too”.

I know the feeling of disappointment having spent time showing people something, because you know it will help, but then they don’t use it. If they don’t see why they should use it and how they apply it to their practice they won’t use it. A big weapon in our arsenal is our memory for examples, “I have seen X used like this”. Examples are real, they can visualise it, they can understand it and apply it to themselves. If you don’t keep it real technology is just an abstract, albeit very shiny, concept.

Technology first works if you want to show people what’s out there. People don’t know what they don’t know. Tech first is a great way to inspire people. It’s a way in. What must be avoided is the sales pitch. We’ve all been to sessions where promotion equates to “it can do this, and this, oh and it can do this which is cool”. No, no, no. Show examples. The finished articles. If people want to know how to use it then come to a session on that. If we take the tech first approach it should be to inspire, to show the wealth of possibilities technology affords and to help staff keep abreast of the ever-changing technological landscape.

Technology is not the destination

Good teaching is the destination. A quality, effective learning experience is the destination. To steal the words of the brilliant Peter Bryant

Technology is just ONE way to enhance, support and perhaps bring efficiency.  I know staff who do not use technology at all in their teaching. Their students don’t mind and module evaluations reflect that. Should we sack them?

It is interesting that in some institutions money is readily invested in the support for digital technologies whilst less is investment is made in the support and enhancement of fundamental skills that underpin teaching. In some instances this support has been totally removed. With TEF on the way should we not be ensuring we have a strong foundation of teaching before we push staff to include technology?Poor teaching practice will not be improved by the use of technology, usually it draws more attention to it.

We are here to teach. If that teaching can involve technology in a way that supports it, enhances it, brings efficiency and is done appropriately, then brilliant. Too often I see technology shoe-horned in for the sake of it. No. Let’s change the conversation. Let’s stop making people feel like they have to use technology and start making people want to!

Why won’t the VLE die?

Ever since the inception of the VLE it feels like we have been asking ourselves this question. We await the next generation, the technology that will save us all from the tyranny of the VLE. VLE (or LMS for my American friends) systems are a divisive technology in education. Some people hate them, others love them, most tolerate them. The benefits of their use are still questioned and explored. So if we’re not convinced that they are beneficial, why won’t they die?

If you haven’t read this post, titled Christ, I hate Blackboard written by user Davenoon please do.  Not only is it hilarious, it demonstrates the level of loathing the VLE can produce.

“These are the words, if I could shit them into being, that I would use to catalogue the depth of my loathing for Blackboard.” Davenoon 2014

The comments that follow the article demonstrate the dichotomy of feeling that surrounds the VLE. This post will not debate the virtues of Blackboard, Canvas or Moodle. What I am interested in is why we are still using them. How, given the speed of technical innovation in all other areas, the VLE remains very much unchanged from where it began.

We are asking the wrong question

We constantly ask what the next generation of each technology we use should do. Therein lies my issue, what it should do. What features it should have, what functionality we expect. But this narrows our thinking. Boils learning to a series of tasks and processes. Learning is much more complex than that.

So the question ought not to be why won’t the VLE die, what the next generation should do; rather what do we want to explore. What pedagogies? What teaching methods and strategies? How will technology support or enhance those things?

We allow ourselves to be technology lead

This point really relates to the one above. We spend so much time worrying about the technology, why it doesn’t work, why we hate it, what we want to see, what’s next, that we miss the most fundamental thing.

Technology use is about people. Technology would be nothing if we didn’t use it. It is that interaction between teacher, technology and student that we should be concentrating on. How can technology help to facilitate this interaction, how can it support or enhance it? We should ensure that the technology enhances, not detracts, from the humanity of the learning process.

Technology is created the wrong way

We are feature focused. Probably because that is the way our minds work. We think about activities, “I want students to do x”, because really most technologies just replicate what we do. They rarely fundamentally change our activities, they might make something easier, sometimes technology even enhances an activity but it’s rare that it replaces it entirely.

It’s hard to escape this way of thinking and I’m not smart enough to suggest how we can do it. It is easier to think about features, “I want to be able to do x”, as that is how we are conditioned. Imagine if we could. If our ideas were unbound from reality, to what currently exists and what is currently possible.

When VLEs were first created I’m sure they were answering a teaching need, chiefly the ease of access to materials for students, sadly since then ‘the problem’ appears to have been forgotten and what has been created seems to be a feature heavy unusable beast. Lots of features are being added without rationalisation or thought about how people actually use them or how they interact with ‘real world’ teaching.

We like things that reproduce what we already do.

VLEs were supposed to be a revolution. According to many the VLE would replace the lecture and, in the opinion of many doom mongers, the lecturer too. Students would all learn online without once meeting face to face and the University would crumble in to oblivion. That hasn’t happened (yet) and I can’t see any evidence of an appetite for that amongst the majority of the student body.

Neil Selwyn, in his 2013 book Digital Technology and the Contemporary University: Degrees of Digitization, describes technology as replicating what we do in the real world. The thought had never occurred to me but as I reflected I realised how true that is. We do in class tests, now we do them online. We used to hand in paper assignments, now we do that online. We ask students to discuss topics in class, now we use online discussion boards. We carry out our lectures and seminars online using video conferencing but we’re still largely following the same format as a face to face session, it’s just online. Yes in all of these examples the technology may have brought some efficiency or flexibility but it has made little fundamental change to our processes.

Change is easiest accepted when it’s incremental and I have always found explaining the use of technology easiest when I relate it to something people are already doing. I’m not entirely sure we are ready for a revolution.

Adoption is a matter of culture change

Even if we had something different. We would need to change the existing culture and processes. If you’ve ever introduced something new in to HE, you’ll feel the pain of this process. It is not quick, it’s not painless and it certainly isn’t easy.

Because we will never win

Even IF we could think of something different, some incredible revolutionary environment, I can absolutely guarantee someone would say it doesn’t work for them. It doesn’t suit their needs or their teaching style. So what we end up with is a bloated, mangled, customised behemoth to make sure that everyone is catered for. Then we receive complaints that it’s bloated, mangled and customised and no-one wants to use it.

In my experience, when it comes to technology, we are never going to win.

ICT dictate what we do

Related to the points below, ICT in my experience largely dictate what we can and can’t have. Rightly so, they need to make sure it works with their infrastructure, is sustainable and reliable. But why should we be shackled by their infrastructure? Should we be held back because they do not have the staff with the necessary skills?

Controversial I am sure but it has to be asked. Why do ICT think that they are experts on the learning process? On teaching? On students? They are the experts on technology, on infrastructure, networks etc. but they have limited experience in any other area. If this is what we need to move forward why should they be allowed to hold us back?

Other technologies hold us to ransom

Related to the point above the existing infrastructure will often not allow us to explore what we need to. We are limited by student management systems, timetable systems etc. that we want to plug-in to our environments but won’t work with one another. This is the ICT departments headache and one of the reasons they can be dictatorial about what we adopt.

Our processes hold us to ransom

Neil Selwyn describes the VLE as a tool of management and surveillance. Another way for management to keep an eye on teaching staff. Again, I had never thought of it that way. It helps to explain the scepticism and mistrust that surrounds it. As the VLE has become part of management it has resulted in a high number of processes being integrated with the VLE. In many instances the VLE has become an absolute necessity for these processes to be completed. Once a technology is part of a process it’s very difficult to remove it and even more difficult to persuade people that they can change it. We are creatures of habit.

We don’t like change

And mostly because…

change

 

Students: I’m worried about you

I’m worried about students and I’m worried about education. There has been a move over the past few years that has seen students lose site of the reason they attend University. Perhaps I’m just an idealist.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. Nelson Mandela

Learning to Pass the Assessment

This is the shift that frightens me most. I have heard a number of students, undergraduates and postgraduates, question why they are asked to complete assignments and work that do not contribute to their final marks. For example, a student was quite affronted that they had been asked to create a blog when they only needed to pass the dissertation to complete the course. There seemed to be no understanding of the skills that a blog develops. Particularly those of reflection.

Another student stated that they could only be tested on the content delivered in their lectures. Therefore, there is no point doing the extra reading and activities suggested by their tutors.

We can find the roots of this attitude in secondary and further education. I remember being told we’ll learn about this today because that will be something that may come up in your GCSE exam. We have been conditioned to learn to pass tests that assess very narrow, specific knowledge.

The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark. Michelangelo

Independent Learning

The amount of work students are supposed to do independently seems to affront them. “Why am I paying 9k a year to not be taught by someone”. The idea that they should not be spoon-fed is seemingly new to them. Yes, all independent learning should be guided. Students shouldn’t just be left but they must develop the skills to learn independently. Maybe we need to make that clearer to them on application to manage expectations.

We are supposedly developing people to be productive members of society and in their employment. A big part of that is independence and initiative.

Tuition Fees

The introduction of Tuition Fees saw a change in the approach of students to their studies. I have heard many times “is that what my 9k a year is paying for”. I started university in 2007 and was one of the first cohorts of students to pay tuition fees. Granted mine were a more reasonable 3k a year with the additional grant repayments.

Tuition fees have introduced the idea of education being value for money. That University is better because with that course I get an extra hour of contact time, a free coffee and a hug once a week. Yes I’m being facetious. What happened to learning for learning’s sake?

I have always enjoyed the gym analogy. You don’t become Arnold Schwarzenegger simply by having a gym membership card in your wallet. You join the gym, work hard, put the effort in and you might become Arnold Schwarzenegger. It won’t be quick and it certainly won’t be easy.

You get what you put in to education. If you work hard, you’ll see results.

NSS and League Table culture

The NSS and the multitude of league tables have compounded the tuition fee effect. Students are now balancing their course choices with the overall position of the university. When you look at the numbers there is often a hairs breadth between universities on the table.

It has led to a number of knee jerk initiatives, often ill-conceived, with the aim of driving universities up the table. Yes there is the desire there to increase quality, never a bad thing, but it has a worrying dark side. The Guardian has suggested that  University staff will be held to ransom by student consumers.

We’ll do what they want, however unreasonable, so we don’t upset NSS.

Monetisation and the “Knowledge Economy”

The current government is hell-bent on monetising education. Creating what they describe as ‘choice’ for students. Given there are 127 institutions listed on the Complete University Guide do we really need more choice?

We’ve seen some of the controversy surrounding private providers with University awards statuses. If you didn’t see it watch the dispatches investigation on YouTube.

Choice does not denote quality. Will it force universities to up their game. Definitely. It may even result in more specialised courses and widened participation. Though a serious question mark still hangs over how they plan to ‘police’ and measure the quality of Higher Education institutions.

I spent an hour at one of our open days talking to a student about which university they should go to. I’m not a career councillor so I talked from my experience of choosing a university and the sort of things she should consider in her decision-making.

I don’t think more choice will lead to quality and I don’t think it will make students decisions any easier.