I am not your enemy

I am not your enemy. I’m the mug who has been thrown into the lion’s den covered in rump steak, to demonstrate the VLE. I don’t know what I’m walking in to. I do not make decisions. I do not create policy. Frankly, there are times I don’t care if you use the VLE. I’m just here to show you. I am not the enemy.

I should be clear that strong anger and hostility is rare.

VLEs are a bit disappointing

To be fair VLEs are a bit of a disappointment. Actually, let me qualify that. Technology is a bit of a disappointment. As David White says “if you go to technology to be the solution…everyone will be disappointed”.

I think we all hope that technology will just work with very little/no interference from human beings. At least sometimes that’s how I think academics hope it works. I may be being unfair here but there are times I see the “oh I have to do something with this to make it worthwhile” look in their eyes. Sadly the VLE does not know what you want to teach. It cannot absorb your teaching materials through osmosis and organize them correctly for you. It cannot create a quiz for you. It can’t facilitate a forum for you.  It can’t decide the best way to present your learning materials and activities to best aid student learning. Unfortunately, like all technology, it requires some human intervention. More importantly, it requires human intervention to make it meaningful. Technology on its own is meaningless.

Technology gives the impression that anything is possible. That’s true to an extent. Technology has opened up endless possibilities. In a way that is a blessing and a curse. Reality does not always live up to expectation. I hear “surely it can do this”, “surely they can do that” but the reality is there is a LOT of work behind even the simplest idea. You don’t see that, perhaps we ought to show you more?

VLEs are designed to do a job. You might be able to plug stuff into it. You might be able to adapt it but on the whole, it does what it does. Can they be better? Oh of course. But they serve a purpose and do that adequately. I hold out for something better but I can guarantee no matter what comes I’ll still be asked: “can it do this”.

Can it do…

Whenever I demo the VLE it get’s compared to other systems. Can it do x? Can it do y? Can students see z in here? I find myself saying no a lot in these situations. Usually because rather than looking at the VLE for what it is and what it can offer, it’s compared to existing systems, some wholly incomparable. I sometimes wish I had that device on Men in Black so I could remove their memories of whatever system they were using previously so they could look at the VLE with fresh unprejudiced eyes. I don’t have that.

I should add that I always want to hear these questions, as they feed into ongoing developments.

We’re doing everything we can…

Sometimes I feel like people assume the reason it can’t do something is that we can’t be bothered to make it do that. We can. We want to. But what they don’t see is the huge amount of thought and work that goes into every decision around the VLE. Even seemingly simple things like turning on plugins. Although sometimes the functionality just isn’t possible or doesn’t exist. We have to consider each request on its merits. It’s not like switching on a light switch. I wish it were quicker. I wish it were simpler but NOTHING about technology is simple (despite what the marketing people would have us believe).

I promise you it’s added to the list. We’re trying to get through the list but it only gets longer. That’s the problem with technology the work never stops. Everyone wants something, because “surely it can be done”.

Don’t shoot the messenger

Unfortunately, we often become the focus of anger for decisions that we have nothing to do with, made by people we have nothing to do with over which we have absolutely no power. Do I think you should use the VLE? Yes because it can do great things when used well and consistency is something students want and deserve. Do I care if you use it? Ultimately no, that’s your choice but you’re missing out on something. Or more accurately your students are.

I didn’t say you had to use the VLE. Someone else did. Sorry. I’m just here to show you. Am I really the person you should be angry with? Do you really think I can do anything about what’s happening to you? Do you think making me feel uncomfortable will help? Do you think talking down to me will help? Do you think it will help to make me feel small?

No. It won’t help.

Why are people still hostile?

The world of ed tech seems to believe that everyone wants to use technology. That it’s obvious that people should and those who don’t are Luddites and dullards. Often anyone who dares questions the use of technology in education is met with much belligerent, disapproving responses. They are an enemy of the state who must be indoctrinated.

The reality is there is still resistance. People do not believe in the use of technology without question. Unlike the majority in the Ed Tech world, they look at it with a critical mind.  There is legitimate criticism of the VLE (not that anyone can agree on the perfect alternative). They are bloated and feature heavy. They never quite work how people want them to. There’s always something missing. Put enough academics in a room and they will find a reason to dislike it. I believe there is legitimate criticism of the use of technology in education. In fact, I think we are obliged to consider every aspect of technology positive or negative.

I suppose we need to change our sales pitch from “you can do a quiz” to “you can scaffold student learning by creating a formative test each week and displaying feedback and content based on their results. The data can also be used as an indicator to show which concepts are proving difficult to understand and may need to be covered again the following week”. There’s a longer blog post in the “can do, should do vain”.

So what do we do?

We grit our teeth and we bear it. If there was universal acceptance they wouldn’t need people like us. Try to always be their champion. Listen, really listen. Respond when they ask you a question. Remind them that you’re here to support them, not get in their way. Smile. Respond kindly. Be patient. You don’t know what might be driving their behaviour, it could be wholly unconnected with you or what you’re there to talk to them about.

Always, always remember:

Should we employ staff who don’t have digital skills?

Job Interview Image

The question posed in the title of this post is a fair one. Why are we employing people who don’t have the digital skills that are needed to cope in today’s ‘digital world’? It’s a question raised with increasing frequency and one that deserves some serious thought.

I should start by saying that I fundamentally disagree with anyone who says that we shouldn’t employ people without the digital skills we ‘need’. I will spend the rest of this post explaining the various thoughts that lead me to feel this way but as an educator I cannot agree with it. I exist to develop people. You wouldn’t throw a child out of class for not knowing something when they walked in, that’s why we educate them, so they leave knowing more than they did when they walked in. Why shouldn’t that apply to staff?

Supporting people

This is the point that bothers me most about this question. Have we totally lost all empathy for people? Is technology really that important that we stop caring about the people we employ and work with? I hope not. I certainly haven’t. People first, technology second. See my post from the UCISA Spotlight on Digital Capabilities event.

There is nothing more satisfying than helping someone gain a new skill. It’s one of the reasons I love what I do. Employers have an obligation to develop their people. If they don’t they have failed.

Apparently a lack of digital skills is costing the UK £63billion. Perhaps the issue is not just in HE.

Widening participation

We talk a lot about widening participation for our students. Striving to ensure students from all backgrounds have access to education. Why doesn’t this principle apply to staff?

What do we ‘need’?

So part of the argument is that staff ‘need’ a specific set of skills. What are they exactly? Who determines what they are? Who is the authority on this?

Let’s take academics in the first instance. Is knowledge of Microsoft Office skills enough? If they can do Office and Twitter is that enough? I don’t believe it’s possible to create a list of things we think staff should be able to do. Their work can be incredibly broad. Technology is constantly changing and so do the goal posts.

How do we measure it?

In an interview how do we glean someone’s skill levels? Sit them in front of a computer and watch them perform some basic tasks? That’s a potential answer. Yet again we have to ask what will the test consist of and who will design it?

Institutional Priorities

I had a great conversation with someone who said “I look for members of staff who will bring value”. They did not feel that digital skills were necessarily a priority for all roles.

Academics have a wide range of responsibilities from teaching to research. Institutions have to balance these priorities when employing new staff. If an academic is a capable teacher and researcher does it really matter that they don’t use Twitter? We can help people to get the skills they need to do their job.


Technology is not always relevant to people. Why should it be? If I know how to teach and research do I really need to know how to use Padlet? I would argue that we need to ease people in to the use of technology. It’s not helpful to vilify people. That will only serve to alienate people from technology further.

I’ve grown up with technology. Although, it’s worth noting that when I first went to school there was one computer for the whole school. I didn’t get a mobile phone until my teens. Not everyone grows up surrounded by technology and it’s naive to believe that everyone has the same experience.

Read my follow up post But what about staff that won’t or don’t want to engage in CPD?