This report to the Higher Education Funding Council for England by the National Union of Students had the remit to “gain a broad overview of the level of demand from students – new and potential – for online learning provision in UK higher education institutions (HEIs), and students’ perceptions of that learning.” The report undertook a literature review, surveys and focus groups and the recommendations reflected some good practice ideas and raised some serious issues. However, in their conclusions there are also several issues at play that could, whilst superficially giving online learning and the ‘technology experience’ a boost, also hark back to technology enhanced learning as it was several years or even a decade ago. In the context of the Building Capacity programme, which embeds the outputs from JISC innovation projects, it is clear that some of the report’s assertions have been closed off from the reality of the immense amount of work undertaken by institutions. This could be for several reasons
- The community responsible for moving the technology enhanced learning agenda forward have not been fully engaged in communicating with those (students and staff) on the outside of that community or fully transparent in their discussions.
- Universities have already moved beyond the remit of the report, almost to a post-digital state, where ICT is becoming ‘transparent’ and moving toward the ubiquity the reports calls for.
- The report did not engage with the full activities within universities, such as the ‘e-learning’ teams, staff development programmes etc.
This short blog post looks at some of the recommendations of the report, and responds with my experiences and examples from work within the Building Capacity programme.
All institutions should have an ICT strategy that is revised every three years and students should be actively engaged in the process of developing that strategy.
The report does not differentiate between ICT and e-learning strategies. In the case of the former almost all institutions have a well established ICT strategy that is examined on a regular basis by the senior management team, it is also under constant review by the ICT teams who are responding to both changes in technological terms and financial reality. In the case of the report it is more likely that ICT Strategy refers to an e-learning or technology enhanced learning strategy. Again many universities have these strategies, but as they mature in their thinking some universities have integrated the technology elements within their generic learning and teaching strategies. These strategies are then matched to the ICT strategies to ensure there is no disconnect and that the ICT strategy can support the learning and teaching needs of the institution. The risk in adopting the recommendation as it stands is that the sector goes back to thinking about, and equating, learning with, for example, computers. The learning and teaching strategy should be distinct from the ICT strategy, where the ICT strategy is influenced and driven by the learning and teaching strategy (and other strategies such as research) and not the other way around.
University faculties should appoint Senior Fellows responsible for new technologies and integrating them into teaching and learning.
This approach was tried, and to a large extent succeeded, in FE colleges with the BECTA programme of Information and Learning Technology (ILT) Champions. In many universities similar approaches have been implemented, however, they often do not focus on sole teaching methods such as use of ICT but take a much broader view. Teaching fellows (either locally in their own universities, or through the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme) strive to ensure that appropriate methods are delivered. It is also arguable that the provision of an e-learning teaching fellow may have a negative impact, where the ‘technology’ elements always reside with one or two individuals within a department. The emphasis for teaching fellows does, and should, remain on encouraging appropriate teaching methods rather than a push for a specific product or format.
ICT usage and learning should be embedded into the design of new programmes through the validation process.
Like the previous recommendation, this seems to generalise, and I would ask is this appropriate for all programmes? We run the risk of shoehorning technology practices that do little or nothing, or even worse, damage the learning experience when we insist on embedding some practices over others. A linked recommendation is “The course evaluation form should question the extent to which tutors have integrated ICT into the courses” – again, the evaluation needs to assess ICT only if its use is considered appropriate.
Periodic reviews should assess the extent to which VLE and ICT is used to enhance learning.
This is one of the recommendations that stands out as something that should be delivered if it is not already. In fairness this is possibly already in place in institutions, and certainly in the Building Capacity projects’ institutions that I’ve spoken to they have been doing it for several years as part of their quality processes.
Institutions should consider ways of making university administration more accessible through technology, including e-submission of assessments, registration and course choices.
This is an area that can not only help deliver higher student satisfaction, but can also improve the experience, effectiveness and efficiency of staff. Many JISC programmes are working in this space and there are high gains to be made. Where universities are doing this well, the researchers on this study may not even have been aware of these invisible efficiencies. Improved administration has passed beyond innovation into common usage in many universities I’ve visited. It is also possible that where this is already done ‘right’ students don’t know, or don’t articulate it as being present.
ICT skills should be integrated into Professional Standards Framework, in institutional promotional criteria and also selection for teaching awards.
In the Building Capacity projects where the focus is technology and learning, the use of the technologies being deployed in the institution are also making their way in to the ‘new lecturer’ workshops, PGCerts and accreditation programmes such as those through the HE Academy and SEDA. The staff going through these programmes have access to a vast array of options for using technology in teaching. However, the report seems to focus on training staff rather than placing precedence on enhancing the digital literacy of all staff in institutions. The bigger issue is what programmes are compulsory for other staff; it is currently only new lecturers that are required to go through the programmes and there is no requirement for continuing professional development once they have been accredited. This large debate was not addressed by the recommendations.
The report is important, reads well and raises many issues that the sector should look at, especially with regard to students’ perceptions. But, as the recommendations stand they are pushing us back to when technology was, in places, driving learning and teaching. In visiting institutions where we have projects, I see in most cases that senior management teams are building strategies that put learning and teaching (and research) at the forefront and then create the ICT strategy to service them. In some cases the technology may not be visible, as it moves into common usage, a post-digital environment potentially. The challenge arising from this report is not how to use more technology, nor how to integrate it into practice. The challenge is articulating our existing practice in ways that act as both an exemplar to students (and Support their own digital literacy), and enhance our practice by sharing the exemplary work that is already there.