This is just me thinking out loud…
My wife went for a run at the weekend. She does that.
I do not run, for the record.
She’s an orienteer (running with a map and compass), she’s also a former British Champion at night orienteering. Orienteering is a very social sport, so the pandemic had an impact. One of the things you have to do in orienteering is “punch” controls – and as physically touching things and social distancing is an issue during the pandemic it became difficult. Today she ran without contact. A tool, an app for the competitor’s phone, has been developed that allows competitors to get within so many metres of a “control” point, their phone registers the contact and they move on to the next point, and so on until they complete the race.
The pandemic has changed many things. Many of my peers, both in my office and in the HE sector, were able to work from home. We had the means. But many of the things that we did, we shouldered the cost for too.
The sector has been doing online learning during the pandemic, much of it very effective and meeting the needs of students. In many cases it was not just a simple “transfer” of what happened in physical spaces to online, despite the political rhetoric, it was well thought through shifts in practice, grounded in existing good practice. And there are many examples of the changes having a positive impact, not least of which is the changes in some university’s attainment gaps.
These changes happened in an emergency, and we threw resources at the emergency to keep learning happening. We threw technology, tools, software, apps at the problem. Education happened. Education happened, as it has done for many years, online.
But as in orienteering, practices in education have shifted, and we now have more technology as a default. That technology will have a minimum entry level, for staff and students. And a lot of that technology, currently, will be the responsibility of the user. We have begun to start with digital in our planning, in our designs. But I am worried that instead of starting with “how can we design this for all our students” we are starting with “this is what we can now do with the technology.”
I think it’s crept up on us. At the start of the pandemic emergency, as I have described elsewhere, we interviewed staff about what they were doing. They described what they were used to doing in physical spaces and wanted to ensure that they could give an equivalent experience online. They were prioritising the students’ learning outcomes initially, but we saw that shift to focusing on learning experience pretty quickly.
But as we have moved through nearly 2 years of disruption (and are looking at an uncertain amount of more in the future) I can see that EdTech vendors have started to weaponise the pandemic, dropping new apps, tools and features in increasing numbers. My inbox is full of emails wanting to demo this and that.
But vendors aren’t targeting edtech and instructional design teams, many of whom are well aware of the risks of technology-first planning and policies. Vendors are increasingly directly targeting teaching staff and students. Sometimes by the time the learning tech team finds out about a tool, it has already been deployed across half a student cohort by students themselves. We are surrounded by messages that tell us that technology can fix things (this part is not new to the pandemic). So, students and staff alike are finding and sharing tools, to try to make things better.
Many institutions are coming out of the emergency with the intention of looking at their curriculum and learning designs. I am hoping that they involve learning technologists and instructional designers, and that those teams are mindful of design for all. I hope that in all of these redesigns the inclusion of new technology elements do not become an additional barrier to participation.
Students and staff are in a terrible position in the pandemic emergency (as are we all, except the very very rich) and everything is awful. One problem is that these tools will not solve the larger situation of an uncontrolled global pandemic. Another problem is that few of the new tools seem to be driven by the imperative of design for all, or as I would like to see, design with the most precariously positioned students in mind first.