cattle and Snakes

Reflecting about adopting more technology

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. 

When I first met my wife, when she would run she would have to go to each control and physically use a type of hole punch to mark a card she was running with, and then move on. Also all the equipment was owned and provided by the club organising the race. Now, at the very least, to compete you need a phone that has a minimum standard of OS and possibly some sort of GPS function to track where you have been to run the app, and a level of digital capability. It would probably be a good idea to look into the privacy policy too (I haven’t) because orienteering is a popular school sport, and if kids are using phones that track where they are running, and uploading personal data, it will need someone to think through the data policy in that school, as well as having some IT support.

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. 


  1. I think there is something to be said about the way things changed and the timescales. Traditionally education was quite conservative, with periodic episodes of change (especially as new theories of learning come up). The pandemic ripped up the established rulebook, so I think, initially, everyone tried to recreate classroom in whatever cobbled together online learning space they could. As those spaces settled (or were bought in), then people began slowly to question its effectiveness, not in terms of ludditism, but with a desire to innovate and improve. I think people have engaged more with pre-existing knowledge and practice. [As an aside, I don’t think we necessarily questioned the nature of the tools we first transitioned to – cough Zoom or Teams].

    As things have started to settle, especially in the second academic year, people have looked at how they could use the available tools better. They’ve started to hit the boundaries of what those tools could do (or at least the boundaries of what they thought tools could do), and instead of adapting practice, they’ve looked outside for new tools to achieve what they want. I think this is the shift. I also think universities have been to blame for this, with a huge amount of money thrown at vendors to help ‘keep students happy’. I’m quite lucky in that my institution accelerated plans to buy certain tools during the pandemic, so some thought had gone into that beforehand. Except for proctoring tools, they were an ill-judged mistake.

    Overall, I agree with what you say. There are vendors looking to capitalise on the opening of purse strings in the sector, and the lack of rigour or critical questioning when it comes to the purchase of new systems. It’s tough to move quickly and do your due diligence. Maybe more of those pennies should be spent on the people who can help, rather than shiny tools and their software.

  2. What has been most profound is that the pandemic has more or less left no ‘choice’ but shift teaching practices online. In turn, we’ve had students learning or orienting experience of HE without having set foot on campus, and they’ve seen first hand what has not worked very well and what has. I’ve found what is very much disliked by those new to university in a pandemic is prerecords which have been clearly taught a while ago. Understandable circumstances, well yes. It’s left a real dehydration for learning and assessment of value at an individual level, in that their learning is perceived as important and that it matters.

    Many have seen the tech capabilities, others desperate for things to get back to ‘normal’. Just as the pandemic has forced us to shift and for many rethink and reflect, consequently it has somewhat put the spotlight on roles, structure, pre-pandemic blended learning and full on remote learning and teaching – to say the least. Have the reigns seen some sort of handover or the field of discovery and experimenting just got wider, could this be just temporary, is it really such a bad thing? I can see how it can be. Could it be learning technologists reassess their core role and position themselves more meaningfully. Certainly, it’s not a time to sit back…

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