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!

My worst teaching experience (so far)

I have had a number of bad experiences in teaching, difficult students, technical failures, a students nodding off, but this blog is an account of my worst experience in teaching. I emphasise the so far part. Teaching is a fickle mistress possessed of mood swings envied by even the most hormonal teens. It doesn’t matter how good you are or how much you plan, sometimes it just goes badly.

I’ve been writing an essay on student support this weekend and it reminded me of an episode in my teaching that I will not soon forget. the reason I describe this episode as the worst experience was because it was an emotionally challenging event. I have never before, or since, had a student cry in one of my sessions.

I was delivering a 3.5 hour long session on using Gmail. 3.5 hours?! you say. I know, that’s a long time but you left knowing everything you needed to know about Gmail. Incidentally this puts me in mind of the time a member of ICT attended one of our sessions and told my colleague that what was taught could be done in an hour. It’s safe to assume we ignored their advice. Anyway, a student, lets call the student Anne, attended this session and was profoundly deaf choosing not to use hearing aids. So I couldn’t rely on technology to save me.

Anne and I spoke before the session began about what she needed me to do. Face her at all times and speak slowly so she could read my lips. Easy enough I thought and began with gusto. I had no idea how hard it is to modify behaviour that has become completely unconscious. I realised I had delivered that session so many times every gesture and phrase was so natural I barely thought about it. At the end of the session I noticed she looked upset.

Once alone I approached her, at which point she cried, and told me she had found the whole session overwhelming. Trying to read my lips and perform the tasks on the computer was too much for her. This was the point at which I wanted the ground to open and swallow me whole.

In retrospect I should have slowed my delivery, ensured she was looking at me before speaking and avoided speaking whilst asking them to perform a task.

I should have checked on her during the break, I could have intervened earlier and modified my behaviour. I also didn’t want her to feel that I was checking up on her, that I was treating her differently to everyone else.

I should have talked more slowly, ensured I didn’t ask her to do something on the computer whilst I was talking and that I had her eye contact whilst I was speaking. It’s very difficult. Teaching had become so unconscious it was hard to get out of old habits.

I tried to reassure her that it was not admitting defeat and that she should do whatever helped her learn. We discussed what we should do at length and decided that in future she would learn best when taught by me on her own.

It was by far my worst experience. I felt so guilty. She had come on my course and left feeling awful. I’ve never been under the illusion that people left like this:


But to have a student leave having been so upset was devastating.

What is inclusive practice?

Inclusive practice is an approach to teaching that seeks to ensure that all students are able to participate in learning and demonstrate their abilities in assessment. Students should not be disadvantaged by culture, religion, disability or previous educational background.

Reflecting on your teaching practice You can increase the effectiveness of your teaching practice by reflecting on diversity, being aware of how your own background and identity are expressed in course design and teaching style, and understanding your reactions to particular individuals and communities to recognise your affinities and prejudices and consider how they affect students’ experiences of your course.

  • Plan teaching to include opportunities to encouraging interaction between students of different backgrounds. This could be done by allocating groups for tasks.
  • Use accessible language. Try to avoid colloquialisms that may not be understood by all.
  • Use examples that speak to the diversity of the student group. By acknowledging as many voices as possible you will engage more of the student group.
  • Use a variety of teaching and assessment methods. As long as the learning objectives are met you can be flexible about how students are assessed.
  • Try to open dialogue with disable students, they know best what adjustments they may need to learn effectively.
  • Be flexible about how you teach, the materials you use and the formats you provide.
  • Be open to the use of assistive technologies.

Ding ding, round two

I’ve been really pleased to receive comments on my recent blog Another Bell Tolls for the Lecture. (Chiefly, as it’s proof that someone actually read it.) I wasn’t sure when I wrote the blog, how well it would be received. Teaching is an emotive subject. It’s very difficult not to demonise staff when we talk of the need to change practice.


Am I unambitious? Yes. If I had the power I would scrap the lecture immediately but like most of those who try to influence education, I don’t. I’m also careful when talking about teaching practice and prefer to give a balanced view. I know plenty of staff who would fight tooth and nail to keep their lectures. Staff are under enormous pressure and it’s easy to cause offence when you discuss their practice. Especially given that a lot of the reasons for the use of the lecture are beyond their control. I think it’s important to acknowledge the external constraints and pressures that they suffer. It’s easier to blame an individual for poor delivery of a lecture than blame the systems that perpetuate the lecture format.


The University Economy

All Universities strive for more students. More students = more money. More money = more buildings etc. The problem with more students is you need more room and more staff. These are not forthcoming in any university I have worked at. For more students you need more staff, again, rarely forthcoming, so we build a bigger room to fit them all in so then we still only need one lecturer. Hence the perpetuation of the lecture. If we get more students, and do small group teaching only, we need more rooms and more lecturers to timetable.

I have no idea whether universities have determined the critical mass of student numbers. Clearly there comes a point where student numbers are such that the university infrastructure cannot cope. Appointing new staff can be a lengthy and costly process, as a result new staff are not necessarily employed in time to cope with the increase in students numbers. This results in the preservation of a model that most would accept, and research demonstrates, is not the most effective way for students to learn.


Is delivery the problem?



Stephen thinks so and I agree to an extent. Bad delivery is not unique to the lecture. All teaching can be delivered poorly. Bad teaching is simply bad teaching. There are lots of reasons why teaching can be bad, sometimes, even with the most careful planning and preparation, teaching just goes wrong. I can certainly think of lots of car crash sessions I have delivered. The difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher, in my opinion, is whether they reflect on what went wrong and try to change it.

Stephen mentions discussion which, when poorly facilitated, is no more effective than the lecture. Done well discussion can be the a valuable method of teaching. I read an interesting book on discussion recently by Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill called Discussion as a Way of Teaching (2005). They have adopted discussion as their main teaching method and reflect on the pros and cons.

Active is the most important word in Stephen’s comment. Active learning is the key to effective teaching and learning. Whether that be through discussion, group work, problem based learning, polling, questioning etc. Is active learning easy to do in the types of rooms and with the sizes of classes we are given? No. It’s hard but we can many small things to make a difference. I know of a lecturer who dances in his lectures. Not everyone’s cup of tea but his students love it and it certainly keeps them awake. Other encourage discussion in pairs or use a polling system to quiz their students in the lecture. It’s not easy, but we can do it.

I think a good start would be to remove the lecture v.s. small group teaching dichotomy. Techniques and methods used in lectures and small groups should not be considered as mutually exclusive. All techniques, when well used, will work in any teaching context.

The perceived hierarchy of those who teach and those that learn should be broken down as a collective collaboration of learning. Stephen Fisher December 2015


Yes please. Collaborative learning would certainly ensure the students can influence and invest in their learning. Again, I am drawn to mention all the constraints that make this very difficult if not impossible. We do a lot to involve students in the development of their programmes. Through various forums and through student reps however, the downfall is that improvements usually happen after the fact; too late for the current cohorts to benefit from. This is largely due to the bureaucracy that surround programme and curriculum development. I’d love to know more about how Stephen sees this being achieved.

It was great to see Teuta Hoxha, who’s article in the Guardian “Is missing lectures harming my studies?” in the Guardian prompted my writing the original post. I’d love to know more about how you’ve been directing your own studies.


Tell Us More

I would love to hear from staff and students about the lecture. Do you love lectures? Hate lectures? Want to save or scrap lectures?

Tweet @kerrypinny or leave a reply at the bottom of this post.

Another Bell Tolls for the Lecture

We have, for a long time, been questioning the role and effectiveness of the lecture in university teaching. The format of the lecture has changed little from its inception in ancient Greece and yet we continue to rely on this as the core teaching method. So, my interest was piqued when I saw an article titled “Is missing lectures harming my studies?” in the Guardian.

Teuta Hoxha, a student from Kings College London, stopped attending his lectures after a few weeks.


Student Expectations


“The anticipation of passionate words bouncing off and beyond the podium”. Tueta Hoxha 2015


I think it’s important to consider what students expect when attending university. Teuta, I fear, had watched The Dead Poets Society (1989) a few too many times. I think all teachers would like to think they are the embodiment of Mr Keating, inspiring students to think differently to have them stood on their tables at the end of every lecture giving us rapturous applause.

That is not the reality. I think students forget that we are not automatons. We are human beings as nervous as they are to stand in front of other people. They forget that in lecturing we are vulnerable, that we are giving away a little piece of ourselves each time.

We don’t all teach interesting subjects and what is interesting to one student will bore the next. If we want to give our students the contextual understanding of their field we have to teach the ‘boring’ stuff. We can’t always be blowing stuff up in the lab, creating the next Turner prize winning submission or solving the unanswered questions of the universe. We can make our subjects interesting by employing activities that keep students active. By asking challenging questions and involving them in discussion. Are these activities easy to do in a lecture theatre? No, they take a lot of careful planning and students who are willing and able to be involved.


“I expected enthusiastic speakers whose hunger for Chaucer could be seen in their uncontrollably moving hands. Instead, lecturers read off their notes, blazing through piles of information in the most monotone and disengaging voice.” Tueta Hoxha 2015


We are not all great orators. There are courses on confidence, presentation techniques but essentially confidence comes from practice. We are not all teaching subjects that excite us, that is more the fault of the institution than the lecturer. Lack of staff means it’s hard to enthuse on a subject if you’re not fully confident in your knowledge or if you don’t find it that interesting.

Learning Environments, the Timetable, the Curriculum and Cohort Size

We are also bound by a number of things that students don’t see. In the race for student numbers, small flexible learning spaces are becoming a premium. Our timetables mean we often end up getting what we’re given, not what we asked for. Yes there’s an element of interaction that can be injected in to a lecture but we can’t give students the kind of individual attention they desire, especially as cohort sizes reach several hundred.

We are also expected to deliver a curriculum. We have outcomes we must meet. I often wonder what students would prefer, less content but more interactive teaching or, more content but less interaction? I’m not sure. Of course there is a balance, but would students really be happy if the onus was as much on them, to seek learning, as it is on us to deliver it?

Is this the death of the lecture?

Long, long, long term, yes; short term, no.

The University of Northampton has taken the plunge and is building a campus without lecture theatres. I wait with baited breath to hear how well that goes.

Some would argue that the lecture itself is not the problem; it’s the way it’s taught. I can agree with that to some degree. We as teachers have a responsibility to make sure that our teaching methods and activities are effective in supporting students to learn. If part of that is making sure they stay awake; we should be doing what we can.

To bury the lecture everyone, students, staff and the institution, must reach the fifth stage of grief, acceptance. We know lectures are not the best way to learn, they are the best way to provide lots of information. Whether students take that in, or learn anything, has for some reason been seen as inconsequential. Teuta is yet to suffer any ill effects from missing his lectures but perhaps Teuta is in the minority of students who have the discipline to self-direct their learning. Would that approach work for everyone? I’m not convinced.

If we are to give up on the lecture, we must do as Northampton has, and take the plunge.

Let me know what you think tweet @KerryPinny.