If you work in a university and you read widely enough it can sometimes feel like universities are the piñata of public discourse generating a lot of existential angst. Universities need to change and adapt over time like all large organisations, but opinions on the how, what and where differ pretty widely. One of biggest areas driving forward a transforming narrative in our universities is digital technology. This has led to many universities developing digital education strategies aiming to catapult their institutions fully into the digital age by…(insert year here). As a proponent of digital and online education, this is music to my ears right?
Well I’m not so sure…
One of my main problems with a discrete strategy is that it sidetracks the real issue that determines its success, which is one of changing institutional culture towards education as a whole. It seems obvious to me to state that the value placed on learning and teaching and academic workload/time are two of the biggest barriers to enhancing education in a lot of institutions. Failure to tackle these will render so much of the desire to deliver improvements, innovations and transformation inert.
Does a digital education strategy also imply that universities aren’t already permeated by digital technology? They most definitely are. Or that digital technologies are not intrinsically part of all of our lives now? Digital is the norm and it has arrived, there needn’t be any pretence about that. As one university recently stated digital education is part of normal business embedded within university strategy not separated from it.
The real issue is that most of the time technology isn’t being used effectively or the technology being served up to educators and students is anachronistic. There’s often a correlation between those two and you have to ask the question, why would a time pressured educator be motivated to eke out an intended pedagogy from incongruous technology that staff and students constantly pillory.
What’s clearly happened in most universities is that they have simply, as someone else put it, ‘digitised the status quo’ – classic examples of this are LMS’ as the content dump you used to print and handout, recording of lectures and digitisation of assignment submission, marking and feedback. The fact that these digitisations have often been mandated means that institutions have only really generated extrinsic motivations to the adoption of digital technology in education. This can be and has been divisive and sometimes counter productive. Digital education strategies sometimes seem to be simply a continuation of this approach, with centrally derived aspirations that everything is ‘blended’ – an empty term that for all its mentions is rarely defined, understood or elucidated, but gives people with a surface level understanding of the affordances of technology in learning and teaching something to espouse.
As Joshua Kim started in a recent piece in response to this kind of narrative, ‘There is radical potential in continuous improvement. If the goal is to advance student learning, then the best method we have is to continuously make small but measurable advances (in pedagogy, in classroom design, in learning tools, in learning analytics, in educator development, etc. etc.) that will ultimately result in big leaps.’ The business of being an evidence informed educator hasn’t changed, but technology has opened up new possibilities. The same criticality, the same process of developing effective pedagogy prevails and some who haven’t jumped on the EdTech bandwagon on grounds of being unsure it effectively supports their intended pedagogy have been wrongly maligned. Surely our prime focus needs to be on education in the broadest sense and equipping our educators with the skills, knowledge, rewards, support and time to develop pedagogies that are effective, learner centred and evidence based. Tapping into and fostering intrinsic motivations to be the best educator you can be. This and a gradual changing of culture and value placed on learning and teaching provides the foundation and platform for genuine, lasting and positive transformation, technology is just and will always be a supplement to that.