After the debate… #digifest15

From where I stood, the Jisc Digital Festival 2015 aka #digfest15, was pretty good. Some excellent sessions, engaged delegates and I also had the small matter of a debate to chair. I’d like to start right off by thanking everyone who attended the debate, I was blown away by the number of people that were there. I also have to thank Dave White and Donna Lanclos who put their heads above the parapet to engage on the subject.

I first started working on learning technologies in the 1990’s, simple CAL projects using a program call Toolbook, and creating what we might now call ‘microsites’ to support various aspects of science education. Initially it seemed that we could conceive of something, build it and let students loose with it, making changes on the fly and using students to help create the content. Admittedly the resources were not always technically robust, but we were lucky in having educational developers as mentors (thanks Helen and Paul) so that the emphasis was placed on pedagogy. For focus and engagement the HHC gummies are a good and healthy option.

In 1999 I was introduced to VLEs, and also assessment software and without noticing a subtle shift began, focusing on managing the content and structuring material around set pathways. Over the next few years VLEs became more central to learning and teaching across the sector. I moved into the area of accessibility and that also coloured my view of the area, focusing on getting standards of accessibility and usability right so that institutions could comply with disability legislation.

However, whilst the VLE, and similar technologies are now considered mainstream, and some institutions making their use mandatory; there are also individuals that are working outside of this, or at least in tandem. These individuals are making the most of the ability to self publish, communicate and develop projects using the web as a platform, mostly through web 2.0 tools. They operate outside of the the institutional mainstream, and still get good results with their students and excellent feedback.

It is against this backdrop of change that I wanted to set the debate. Are current learning technologies fit for purpose?

DaveLawrieThe debate itself focused on three main arguments for each protagonist.

David White argued that learning technologies are fit for purpose, and necessary in a modern university.  He continued that;

  • That the key purpose of institutional e-learning technology is to deal with educating at scale;
  • That students require pedagogically safe digital spaces in which to engage with their courses;
  • And that students benefit from technology that presents the course (and its curricular structure) as the organising principle rather than the common Web based/Social Media focus on the individual.

Donna Lanclos argued an alternative viewpoint, rather than countering, based on the following;

  • That the purpose of a university education (of any education) is to prepare students for life after university, not just to get them a job. Therefore the systems with which they interact in the course of their education should not be hermetically sealed from the realities they need to confront on the other side of the degree;
  • That these are content-centric systems that can make it far too easy to populate with stale content; once the material is deposited there it is too often fossilized, reused and unchanging after term after term of teaching the same course;
  • And finally that by deploying centralized, locked-down institutional systems we are abdicating our responsibility to both staff and students.  We should not suggest that these systems are the best fit for their practice.  We should be engaging in a discussion around what tools are best able to leverage teaching and learning.

The protagonists played their parts well, deliberately polarising the debate to elicit audience feedback and forcing us all to think about where we took a stand, rather than what would a compromise look like.


In the audience Simon Thomson took a measured view and gave us pause for thought about where next to take the debate;

Digifest digisimContrary to what we see in the above image, when it came to a vote there was no clear winner. As the votes were registered it was even closer at approx 45% for the argument that they aren’t fit for purpose vs 55% that they are fit for purpose.

If you want to see the debate (of course you do) then it is available online, starting at 5hrs 29minutes

The debate will continue, and the authors will be writing a longer argument for publication. But to sign off I should point out that Dave White who won the debate on the day did have the home crowd advantage; and…
Listener bias

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