Does the Technology Matter?

Recently I have given keynotes at the Plymouth e-Learning Conference (video here .wmv format) and the  Technology Enhanced Learning Symposium at DeMontfort University (slides here), both of which explored the flow of technology from shiny innovation through to  embedded use within an institutional environment. I did this from the perspective of the individuals/groups involved rather than by describing the evolving affordances of digital platforms. This approach being an attempt to avoid the ‘what’ of technological determinism, concentrating instead on the ‘why’ of institutional/individual motivations.

A few of the things I covered included:

  • Drawing out the similarities and differences between the geeks gate keeping the BBC Micro in 1982 with the beautiful people (in expensive jeans) ‘life-styling’ the iPad in 2010.
  • Highlighting the daunting breath of activity and motivations that now come under the increasingly useless banner of ‘digital’ by contrasting the excellent Hierarchy of Digital Distractions with the contents of the 2009 GCSE in Information Communications Technology.
  • Asking the audience to reflect on their own personal motivations and positions relative to my ‘Six Very Simple Diagrams’: Role, Desire, Pedagogy, Technology, Motivation and Bickering.

Of these ‘Role’ seems to cause the most discussion:


Do you see your role as one of successfully embedding technology  until it becomes ‘transparent’ or is it more about challenging current practices using the tech as a driver for change? It could of course be a combination but my experience within the Higher Education sector is that groups coalesce around either ‘disappear’ or ‘disrupt’. This, in my opinion, is why individuals who can facilitate communication between these groups are crucial to the ongoing innovation-embedding flow within any institution.

The apparent opposition within the disappear-disrupt paradigm was brought back to mind when I was invited to take part in a ‘Does the Technology Matter?’ debate for the ALT-C conference later this year. Inspired by some slightly belligerent Tweeting around the concept by myself, @josiefraser and @mweller Dave Cormier hung the tensions embodied in the statement very elegantly on Smartboards (although he could have chosen any number of technologies) in his ‘It’s about the technology and it isn’t’ post. In the post he neatly balances the push-pull nature of the introduction of new tech into a classroom situation, highlighting what the effects of a new technology can be and what is simply foregrounded by the presence of that technology.

For me this aligns well with the disappear-disrupt concept in that your position on this continuum will underpin your reaction to the ‘Does it Matter?’ statement. This brings me to extend the question into a more useful form: ‘Does the Technology Matter for What?’ which does not have an objective answer as it is inextricably linked with ‘What do you Think you are Trying to Achieve?’ Oddly the latter question is often passed over when ‘new’ technologies are being introduced with vague allusions to ‘efficiency’ or ‘it’s what the students want’.

Again it’s the ‘what’ not the ‘why’ which tends to get focused on. As an example I would cite the ‘digital literacy’ debate in which motivations to engage frequently go unexplored leading to a focus on how to develop and maintain a successful digital identity as if this is the only way to live and learn. This in turn inevitably moves onto interminable discussions around facebook privacy options that ultimately spiral into the nature of society as a whole until lunch brings the whole thing to an inconclusive finish. Too much ‘what’ morphs into a woolly ‘why’ just as people start to get really hungry.

What I’m lobbying for here is a properly balanced conversation around ‘Does the Technology Matter’ in which we avoid simplistic posturing by making it clear what our assumptions and motivations are. In this way the discussion will help us to reflect on our own positions and how we can successfully collaborate with those around us who hold differing views but might well be trying to achive similar things. I’m not saying that I’d-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing I just think that our underlying approach to technology is still a little 1982 and it’s time to accept that the picture is a bit more complex.

Initial reflections on the future of online learning

The first few months of 2010 were very busy for our group as we tackled (with the support of JISC) a complex and wide ranging study for the HEFCE Online Learning Task Force (OLTF). On 17 March we submitted our overview of the current provision of HE level online distance learning in the UK to the OLTF. Recently, as a result of the study and other research, HEFCE published a short paper to encourage discussion and feedback from the sector on the work of the OLTF. In the paper they highlight a number of our key findings:

  1. More should be done to provide a simple taxonomy of the wide range of student experiences that currently fall under the broad title of ‘online distance learning’.
  2. The vast majority of online distance learning offered by HEIs is focused on postgraduate-level provision.
  3. Most online distance learning can be identified as professional development, or as having a strong vocational focus.
  4. It can be challenging for potential students to find out about online distance learning courses, with information often hidden in complex institutional web-sites.
  5. Where details are available, they frequently fail to provide the full range of information that a potential student needs to make a decision about studying online.
  6. We need to improve the market intelligence available to give a clearer picture of the position of UK online distance learning in an international context.

Notably the paper also mentions that: “96% of undergraduate students use the internet as a source of information and 69% use it daily as part of their studies”. The Task Force however are not distracted by this level of uptake and set out a clear position with regards to technology:

“…It is also clear that technology platforms are not a barrier to success. The OLTF does not intend to dedicate significant attention to this area. We intend to pay more attention to business models to ensure sustainability and cost-effectiveness, and to pedagogical good practice to support academic quality.”

In my opinion this is indicative of a Post-Digital approach in which as one of the study’s interviewees put it “the technology is vital but not central”. I’m pleased to see this underpinning philosophy being taken by such an influential group (especially as Post-Digital thinking informed my two presentations to the Task Force).

As ever it is important to stress that the Post-Digital does not discount the importance of those groups and individuals employed to develop and manage technology. In fact this approach makes clear the need for ongoing innovation and an active engagement with emerging platforms/services.

“The OLTF is aware that there are a number of organisations that are already active in supporting UK HE as a world leader in online learning: for example the British Council, the Higher Education Academy and the Joint Information Systems Committee. It is keen to ensure that institutions harness such expertise…”

I hope that the ongoing work of the OLTF continues to recognise the importance of academic expertise, institutional savvy and the need to understand (and occasionally challenge) student expectations. Certainly any approach that does not imply that technology is some sort of ‘magic bullet’ for the limitless up-scaling of HE level education must be healthy. This approach also helps to manage institutions’ expectations of technology and those who are responsible for its implementation.

Our full study of online distance learning in the UK is due to be published by the OLTF in late June 2010. In the meantime take a look at the HEFCE discussion paper. Responses are due in by 14 May.