The Debate Team

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.

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

Are Learning Technologies fit for purpose? #Digifest15

In the strictest sense of the word technology has been used in in learning and teaching since before we were using chalk on slate; the reasons are myriad including efficiency, enhanced learning, or just because it is there. On Monday 9th March 2015 we will be debating “Are learning technologies fit for purpose?” This debate will focus on current, common learning technologies, for example Virtual Learning Environment and e-Portfolios. It is not the purpose of the debate to either define or redefine learning or technology.

Most of the common use learning technologies today were conceived of in the 1990’s. At the time the student body, in the UK, was different politically, socially and in its use of technology. Students still had grants. Laptops were not common for students, and smart phones and tablets had yet to become a reality. Having the internet at home meant dial up. Mailing lists were innovative, and we hadn’t yet become cynical when we read “apologies for cross posting” at the top of an email.

It was this against this backdrop that learning technologies emerged.

But there are large differences between students in the 1990’s and students in 2015.

Some students arrive on campus with several devices, all connected, all synced.

The students themselves are diverse, with widening backgrounds and skills; some come to university for the experience, some with direct vocational objectives.

Finally, the student experience is something that is now commoditized; students are seen by some as customers and they want good value.

It is against this backdrop that we must ask “Are learning technologies fit for purpose?”

The Debate TeamSpeaking for the question, and arguing that they are necessary in their current form is David White, Head of Learning Technologies at the University of the Arts London.

Speaking against the question, and arguing that we need to rethink learning technologies is Donna Lanclos, Associate Professor for Anthropological Research, University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

Agree or disagree? Come along to the debate, post a question below, get involved!

Reviewing the Post-digital

In June 2009 the ‘52group’ gathered from across the Higher Education sector to consider the confluence of education and the digital. The result was a position paper entitled ‘Preparing for the postdigital era’. At the time the paper was largely met with a mixture of skepticism and confusion, a common response being “The digital hasn’t been superseded?”. Despite this over the intervening  years the term has slowly gained traction in educational contexts.

To what extent our original paper influenced the recent proliferation of the term is of course not clear but we see the concept being employed in various locations including last year’s SEDA conference: “Opportunities and challenges for academic development in a post-digital age” and a forthcoming conference hosted by Greenwich university: “Flipping the Institution: Higher Education in the Post Digital Age”. There are also numerous examples of the term casually making its way into strategic rhetoric in and around our institutions.

To mark the shift from Digital to Post-digital thinking members of the original ‘52group’ we have each revisited the term to consider it’s definition and relevance 5 years on. This is my perspective:

At the time of writing the original thought piece, Preparing for the post-digital, we were looking to articulate how technology is not a driver of social change, but an enabler. Post-digital has taken many paths since 2009, referring to subsuming of technology into society so that its presence, and to some extent the continued proliferation and innovation becomes a social and cultural norm. However, it should be noted that this perspective is only from a global north perspective.

My focus on the post-digital looked at how some individuals have been enabled to change or modify academic practices. Most of the observations in this area have come from the social media interactions, for example individuals having access to a ready means of publishing though blogs and other social tools. At the moment there is a distinctive, and growing, group of academics and academic related staff that can be identified and recognised through the online promotion and increased visibility of their work. The way that these individuals interact and collaborate with others through media such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs, and importantly how they draw links between the different media is also a defining characteristic.

Peruse any conference information, or mailing lists and you will identify that digital is currently in vogue, and it has mostly replaced the prefix ‘e-‘. For the group of academics referred to previously, the tech-focused distinction has disappeared. To them digital is already invisible, new media are conceived in terms of affordance. They see these tools as an artist would see the brush and canvas, they are there to be used to create and articulate an image held by the user. It is the exploiting of these affordances that make them distinctive. Social media as littered as it is with academic shrapnel showing how people are thinking and developing their ideas is fertile ground for post-digital behaviours. As ideas and information proliferate, so networks and ad hoc communities emerge, often individuals collaborating and never meeting. Most of this happens in the open, reaching new audiences, but more importantly it is almost an open invitation to participate.

In the past individuals may have strongly identified with organisations, institutions or research groups. The post-digital behaviours have begun to alter these relationships they are now more fluid and agile. Relationships develop and fade as needed.

What I didn’t understand about post-digital behaviours at the time of the original paper was that they do not only relate to idea of affordances of technology. The nature of change, especially in education, as gone through a shift of emphasis. The idea of a change process occurring with fixed start and end points is less of an issue. Perpetual beta, the way in which some software is always supplying features or fixes to ensure ever greater usability, can now be seen in the way in which we work and live, for example multiple career paths. If post-digital has a set of characteristics, then the way some organisations seek to create space and time to enable and encourage their staff to always look for ways to innovate would be part of that set.

Understanding how change is happening, and the speed with which students adopt new behaviours and technologies will have huge implications for staff development. Whilst not mutually exclusive, is it better to have an accredited lecturer who has done no professional or personal development for two or three years, or a lecturer without accreditation, who seeks to constantly enhance practice and understand the changing nature of students. The impact of the journey that brought us to post-digital reveals that to prosper at work and socially, individuals need to behave with more agility and flexibility, and of course with the ability both to recognise that innovation is permanent and to accept continual change.

Further reflections on the Post-digital from members of the 52group:

Mark Childs:

Dave Cormier:

Richard Hall:

David White:

Reflections from the SDF Coaching workshop

I was recently invited to a world café style event hosted by the Staff Development Forum around issues arising from mentoring and coaching. The event was excellent, with lots of tips being shared and lots of good practice emerging. There were different elements being showcased but I focused on elements that reflected technology practice, coaching and mentoring at distance and informal approaches. In this post I don’t differentiate between coaching and mentoring as this is about using the technology, for a further discussion on the difference have a look at the Coaching and Mentoring Network

Adding value with technology

1. Always test the Technology

Whether it is a telephone conference, Skype, Lync or a video conference system it is worth making sure that you can connect, and that the person on the other end has no barriers. In addition think about using a USB headset and mic, this makes it much more comfortable on longer sessions. Sometimes these can’t just be plugged in though, so make sure that whoever is using them as had a trial run with you before coming to the session.

2. Identify what you need to see and hear

Is this a group coaching session, an action learning set, or a one to one session? Coaching and mentoring often involves picking up on visual cues, you may need to ask more questions than you are used to, and take extra time so that you can be attuned to these practices. If this is a group session, think about tactics that will ensure everyone gets a turn to speak, and ask questions. This is especially useful if there is no video. If it is a group session you may also like to draw a ‘map’ of where people are sitting.

If the other person or team want to show you visuals make sure they are sent in advance and that you have them to hand in preparation.

3. Environment and ground rules

Doing this at a distance does have some advantages, but you should consider the environment in which you are doing it. Are you or the other person in open place office? Are you distraction free? When accessing through a computer screen it can be tempting to look at other things, such as email. Set some ground rules to overcome this. Treat the session as if you were in a room with no distractions.

4. Managing Sessions

There are several systems available to help administer coaching and mentoring.

Mye-coach tracks, monitors and supports interventions. It also manages requests, selection and matching processes effectively and efficiently and generates reports and evaluations.

SUMAC is a system developed at the University of St Andrews for the data management of the coaching and mentoring. A case study about its development is at

5. The Session

The technology puts something between you and person/people you’re working with. It can seem more difficult to make small talk and relax into a flow. Persevere, setting a clear goal for the session, and a time limit will help. Because there is sometimes less informal conversation the session may go quicker than you expected, don’t worry about trying to fill the time.

If possible, try and have at least one face to face meeting before using technology in to coach or mentor someone, it will make it easier online.

If you record the session, as an aid to reflection, ensure that you have everyone’s permission.

Finally, it is also worth considering using an e-portfolio for record reflection from both you and the person you are working with. These can be shared at a distance and can add value to the sessions.

Five top concerns for Technology Enhanced Practice in 2015

There has been a lot written in the press about the impact of technology, and senior managers in institutions are being bombarded with adverts for workshops and events that offer “space and time for leaders to gain insight into the digital revolution”. In reality many institutions are already prepared, and capable of meeting their technology aspirations and tackling issues that need to be addressed by leveraging existing sector resources and advice.

Working with across a range of institutions with Partners on the LFHE led CLL programme we identified a numbers of concerns that should be high on institutional agendas for 2015.


An over-riding complaint from students is about inconsistencies in how staff use technology in their practice, across teaching and learning, communication and other areas outside of the physical and virtual learnings spaces. Many students also perceive that their own digital literacy practices are more developed than their tutors. However, we need to unpick the issues. Consistency is not the same as uniform, and leadership teams will need to be able to strike a balance between consistency, personalisation and how these align with the expected “student experience”.  For example recognising that certain inconsistencies between different academics are part of the value of an education experience.

More flexible approaches to Technology

Whilst there is still a student demand for computer suites, more and more students want their learning material, timetables and assessment feedback in a format that they can access in different ways. For many this is on a mobile device; but students also want to use their own laptop.

Strategies that support Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) need to be flexible, and recognise a set of core activities that students need. Pioneering institutions in this area have discovered a range of issues to be overcome e.g. inconsistencies between different devices (some smartphones are not “smart”), use of specialist software (such as complex statistical packages) and other considerations such as power to charge devices. The overriding message from students is that they are very keen on mobile access for both on and off-campus use and mobile apps can be highly effective in facilitating high levels of student-staff engagement.

Joining the dots (or connecting the nodes)

There is a growing realisation that institutional systems need to develop with a more joined-up approach in order to provide better information for all stakeholders, especially students. However, joining up systems also brings benefits to academic, administrative and support staff and senior management. Integrating student records systems with the VLE, electronic management of assessment and e-portfolio systems can have huge benefits, including supporting student retention and managing workloads of staff and students.

Staff Development

As mentioned above, student perceptions of staff digital literacy is mixed. This can impact on evaluation of modules and courses and how students perceive their overall student experience. Whatever the digital capability of staff, strategies need to be in place that allow and support staff through the integration of technology into their own practice, be that in teaching and learning, research or in supporting and administering these activities. Integrating technology as components for staff undertaking accreditation, such as UKPSF, is one way to widen take up, but as the technology changes there needs to be ways of equipping staff with the literacies to adapt practice and adopt emerging technology. In addition, greater reuse of existing digital resources should be a priority for institutions, both as a time saver, but also to model resources and encourage further development.

Scaling and embedding

There is a canon of good practice in the field of Technology Enhanced Learning across the sector; and every institution can identify and celebrate its own successes. Senior managers are now facing the challenge of how to scale and embed some of the excellent work generated from bottom-up initiatives. In many cases this will not require large capital spends or change programmes; ensuring that TEL and digital literacy for staff and students is on the agenda of Deans or Heads of Departments would be a sensible place to start. Engaging students in the change processes can also help spread good practice. Additionally, looking at the resources and advice available from Jisc and the partners it is working with can also help.

Cost of studying: a web based tool for student budgeting

Jisc are initiating a small development project to provide the sector with a web-based tool that will aid students in understanding and budgeting their finances whilst studying.

This post represents initial consultation to begin the scoping work. Following comments and other feedback we will begin a more structured consultation before designing a tool and testing it with users.

The project will develop a web-based ‘calculator’ that can be deployed on institutional websites and allow each institution to ‘plug-in’ their own data. It is envisaged that the tool will be aligned to the holistic student experience, helping them understand all of the actual costs of study, but linking it to things such as books, printing, cost of living etc. It may for example, tie into an institution’s retention and student experience strategy.

The project is inspired by work undertaken by Swansea University and Cardiff University

For this initial consultation we are seeking broad input for what the tool may need to have included, what would be considered essential in its functionality and ideas for extending it. We will collate these and then begin a more structured conversation with stakeholders before initial development and user testing. To contribute your input please comment below:

Getting the most from a consultant

I’ve been working on behalf of Jisc in partnership with a group of other organisations, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, Association for Learning Technology, National Union of Students and the Higher Education Academy. Part of the model we’ve been using is reliant on acting as consultants to a variety of higher education institutions. Each of the partners as provided staff and associates to deploy a broad range of support activities. Having done many consultancy days during this programme, I was still unsure about how best to maximise impact and get best use for the client. To that end I emailed a group of staff in institutions, and a group of consultants and asked for their top tips to get best use out of a consultant.

From the consultants perspective

  • Don’t under estimate your own worth, even if you are consulting in an area outside of your immediate area of expertise. Being able to bring your experiences from a variety of areas is still very valuable to the client, as is the external view.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of having an external facilitator – those colleagues who are guarded or respond predictably during internal sessions are likely to be more open and engaged during a session led by someone external.
  • Know what type of consultancy you require – but accept that in most cases an educational institution will benefit most from process consultancy. i.e. dedicated support to help the college or university help itself.
  • Don’t expect because you’re paying them that it will be less work for you. Chances are a good consultant will generate value and more work for you.
  • Identify as soon as possible periods where they are not going to be available, and get a sense of how many days they have free generally over the course of the consultancy.
  • Clarify exactly what you want doing. Be very clear about the amount of days you expect each bit of work to take and the deadlines. This makes invoicing easier for the consultant, and also means that they have a clearer idea of whether it will be worth taking on the job in the first place, or even if it will be feasible to fit it in. If there are models for how the work should look when completed (for example if there is a report to be written) make these available before the contract starts.

From the client (institutions) perspective

  • Don’t expect them to have all of the answers; people are often surprised that they are not provided with answers by consultants. There is a confusion about what consultancy is I think.
  • Agree a clear brief including the political and contextual aspects: what approaches are palatable in your institution, how is external input best presented, how formal or informal is the decision making structure, and where has this project/brief/ challenge gone ‘wrong’ before? Is the university sensitive to research underpinning or will it want a peer-informed gap analysis?
  • For each of the meetings you may have with the consultant put some forethought into priming them so they begin their thought processes in advance; this avoids having unnecessary discussions ‘on the meter’.
  • Use the consultancy to undertake the ‘icing on the cake’ activity. (The added value & usually what you don’t have time to do).
  • Use the consultancy to bring impartiality to your research & evaluation activity.
  • Use the consultancy to look outwards whilst you concentrate on working inwards.
  • Remind any internal staff that the person coming in is an external consultation and that their services are being paid for, not being late for meetings, proper preparation etc. will maximise the consultant’s time.
  • Agree confidentiality and originality clearly. I’ve been surprised about both finding some of our commissioned consultancy outcomes reproduced for other institutions, but also, been confronted with a consultancy report which is eerily similar to one done by the same consultants for another institution.

This is obviously not an exhaustive list, and is meant only to give pointers for both clients and consultants. With thanks to Gwen Van Der Velden, Elizabeth Cleaver, Helen Beetham, Mark Childs, Paul Bailey, Simon Thomson, Caroline Ingram, Will Allan and Sarah Chesney.

How the dinosaur got his nose!

I hadn’t gotten excited about 3D printing. It’s great, love the idea, understand how artists can use it, or engineers can build prototypes etc, but I hadn’t got that excited. That changed for me when I met a project in which Jisc is a partner from the British Geological Society at the Jisc Digifest in Birmingham.

As a child I was (and still am) fascinated by geology and palaeontology (fossils). I was at the project stand and I recognised many of the fossils that they had on display. And I was excited. A colleague came over and I immediately launched into some of my favourite stories about the history of palaeontology. One of those stories is about Gideon Mantell, he was the first person to find the fossils of the iguanodon. In fact he found a large amount of the skeleton – but no skull. So, when it came to drawing what he thought it would look like, he placed one particular bit, that was hornlike, on the dinosaur’s nose, not unlike a rhinoceros.

Mantell's Iguanodon Sketch

Mantell’s Iguanodon Sketch

However, Mantell’s sketch did have the dinosaur much more like modern idea of a dinosaur, as a supple creature and not as the great lumbering beast that some Victorians imagined them as. In fact Richard Owen later created life size replicas of dinosaurs for the Great Exhibition (1851), and they are still in place in Crystal Palace park (below). You can just make out that there is a ‘horn’ on the models.

Model Iguanodons at Crystal Palace

Model Iguanodons at Crystal Palace

Back to the present day, and a few days after the conference, I received a small package in the post. When I opened it I found this:

Iguanodon Fossil

Iguanodon Fossil

This is the ‘Dinosaur’s Nose’ a rare and fragile thing, something I can handle, and hold much as Mantell and Owen must have. I can understand how when they were trying to piece together the clues about what this creature must have looked like they mistook this for a horn. I can hold it, close my eyes and use my sense of touch to try and augment my sight in understanding what the object is.

But it wasn’t stone, it was plastic. A disposable learning object. Louise from the project hearing how excited I was about the Dinosaur’s nose, had gone back to the project and printed off one and sent it to me. I can honestly say I was thrilled.

And if I was thrilled about it just as an object, what would students make of it. The idea that students of palaeontology being able to handle ‘one of a kind’ fossils, or fossils that are very fragile is compelling, and adds something to the learning.

This is an area that is developing rapidly, the idea that we can use technology to augment the physical with the ‘disposable’. The project is at it is, for me, truly inspiring, and I hope that it continues to develop and grow.

And by the way, it’s not a horn. But that’s something for the reader to find out more about – the downloadable file for this ‘printed’ fossil and 3D picture can be found here.

Flipped classroom, or just flippin’ technology? Where are we now with technology, student experience and organisational change?

Jisc have been working in collaboration with key partners in the Higher Education sector to support the technology enhanced learning aspirations of a variety of institutions through a HEFCE funded initiative – Changing the Learning Landscape.

The model of support is based on conversations with key staff in institutions and followed up with targeted interventions. During the conversations a set of key themes emerged and we ran a session at the recent Digifest to discuss these themes and gain feedback from delegates (using voting pads) as to whether these themes reflected the experience of their own universities and colleges.

You can watch the half-hour session starting at approximately 1hr27minutes on the video.

Lawrie Phipps and Sarah Davies presenting at Jisc Digifest

Strategic approaches to Technology Enhanced Learning

How technology in learning is deployed in institutions ranges dramatically, from pockets of enthusiasts, individuals developing small bespoke systems or at the other end of the spectrum, large off the shelf vendor systems. In most of the institutions that we worked in it was apparent that Senior Leadership teams were aware of many pockets of innovation and worked to support them strategically. We asked delegates with regard to impact in your institution, what is having the biggest positive impact on the use of Technology Enhanced Learning? A bottom up approach, strategic leadership or a combination. 65% of the delegates reported that in their institutions a combination of strategic leadership and enthusiasts from the bottom up were having a positive impact. How to best combine the two is emerging as a key theme for senior leaders.

Digital Literacies

The student experience is at the centre of the work we have been doing in the CLL programme, and we have found that one of the areas that institutions are particularly interested in developing further is digital literacies of their students. Perhaps due to the SEDA-organised strand of digital literacies workshops in the first year of CLL, and the work of the Jisc Developing Digital Literacies programme, we’re seeing a deeper level of understanding of the topic in conversations with institutions this year, and there are some quite sophisticated initiatives developing around a holistic approach to digital literacies for staff and students, integrating with continuing professional development processes. Of the delegates in the session, 72% said that developing digital literacies was something their institution was either working on now or was on their agenda for the next academic year. 24% indicated that they had just completed a piece of institutional work in this area.

Technology changing the game

The rapid change in technology over the last 10 years has had an impact on practice. During the session we discussed how digital resources were supporting enquiry based learning, how social media was allowing interaction outside of traditional boundaries such as the classroom and how work-based learning had changed as communication becomes easier between the workplace and the college or university. Thinking through how major technology changes might fundamentally alter what we get up to inside and outside the classroom – and with whom – is on the radar of leaders in learning and teaching, and we asked if delegates were doing this now, next academic year, if they had just reviewed the area or if it wasn’t a priority. 92% of delegates reported that impacts on practice of big shifts in technology were a consideration now or next academic year, suggesting that the sector is moving on from just adding technology to what we do

Red Herrings

We shifted gear in the middle of the presentation and asked delegates to consider what the big technology red herrings had been recently. There was a little discussion around MOOCs and Mobile, as we saw some knee-jerk reactions to particularly the hype around the former in last year’s discussions, but this year institutions seem to have had time to review the hype and pick out the key implications for their own mission. Generally delegates seemed to feel that the sector is in a place where we were quite reflective about technology and in a place where they knew how to spot and use technology appropriately. The conversations with institutions have been useful in highlighting areas in which technology which students are asking for is available, but isn’t used, enabling them to investigate this and ensure appropriate support is in place.

Strategic thinking

The Higher Education Sector has gone through several iterations of how it treats technology, including the approaches we take and the language we use (which sometimes drives the approach). For several years we thought about e-learning strategies; these mostly reflected the rise of the virtual learning environment and associated systems, eventually many of these strategies were subsumed into wider learning and teaching strategies and spoke of good practice in their use. Recently institutions have begun looking at wider technology enhanced learning strategies, these focus on the student experience and reference digital literacy, employability and in some cases innovation with technology. Asking the delegates if they were looking at developing a wider TEL strategy 82% reported that they were either doing it now, or it was on their agenda for the next academic year, with a further 13% reporting they had just reviewed the strategy. Most indicated that this reflected a particular spike of strategy change at the moment, not just ongoing churn and review.

Technology Change

The final question of the afternoon was around technology change. We talked about the VLE, e-portfolios, the rise of tablets and mobile. We were unpicking if people were reviewing what technology they deployed – whether that was changing the systems, installing new, or removing them. This is an area that perhaps warrants a closer look in the future – 25% of the delegates said that they had just reviewed some internal learning technology system, with a further 66% looking at them now or in the next academic year.

Closing remarks from the session

The session focused on the speakers’ personal observations during conversations with institutions, and neither these or the audience response to them is intended to be taken as reliable data. The audience response system was used because a chance to interact with the lecturer in this way is something that students often ask for, and gave the e audience a feel for what their peers around them were also going through. However, we were struck by how strongly the themes we identified appeared to resonate, particularly in the following areas:

  • The number of people looking at Digital Literacy in a strategic way
  • The monitoring of the next big technology game changer
  • The emphasis on TEL strategies that incorporate wider issues
  • The way institutions are reviewing how and what learning technology is deployed

Reflecting on conversations with students, VLEs and the elephant in the classroom

I know there’s been a lot researched and written on this subject, here I’m reflecting and using the anecdotal evidence gathered over a few months work where I’ve been very privileged to have had the opportunity to have conversations with around 200 students from 11 institutions. Most of these conversations have come about through the Changing Learning Landscape Programme, a partnership between the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, Jisc, the HE Academy and the NUS. Through a series of discussions in Universities and Colleges where myself and others have been able to go in and speak to senior managers (PVC’s, Directors of TEL and e-learning, Directors of IT etc) and also with lecturers and importantly students we have gathered a lot of information about how technology features in the student experience .

In my conversations I wanted to unpick how student used the Virtual Learning Environment and other institutional technology. Almost all students said they used it on a regular basis, valued it and saw it as a trusted source for everything to do with their learning and associated activities at University. So that’s ok, isn’t it?

Well, yes and no.

Get the institutional technology right and add in a driver (an assessment or resource that the students must use to get a grade) and there is no doubt that students will use it. This was verified in my conversations. Dig a little deeper, “do you use the VLE (or other technology) to discuss the course, arrange groupwork, work with peers?” “yes… …if its assessed.”   The conversations at this point almost always turned to the elephant in the classroom – Facebook.

Do you friend your lecturers? – mostly the answer is no.

Is there a course/module page or group? mostly the answer is yes (you don’t have to friend anyone to join).

But in addition to this a lot of the students also were regularly setting up their own groups and pages at both micro (a small group of students on a specific task) and macro (sometimes a group across several cohorts). This is not news to most people who work in education!

But what comes next? Facebook is unlikely to change its business model in the short term so students will most likely continue to use it. A lot of staff are recognising this and whilst still using the VLE they are also decamping to where the students are.

This raises three issues for me.

Firstly, what does this mean for the VLE and its future development? There is a lot written on the cost benefit analysis of having a VLE and there are many models for how to deploy and maintain one. After talking to my (limited) sample of students, most of them treat the VLE as a information store, a reference point and where necessary, and driven to, they use it for all of the admin functions of a course such as submission of assignments. If this is the case, should we redesign it with that in mind?

The second issue is a question about what would happen if we cede control to students. Allow students to self organise the course materials and structure according to their preferences. Yes, we would have to build in safeguards, and makes some elements compulsory to include, but why not allow them to control their own virtual learning environment in the same way as they can control their own personal physical learning environment? They might still mostly use Facebook etc, but if they are self-organising the chances are that there will be more joining up of the activities and spaces. Is anyone willing? Will someone make students the system admin?

The final issue, building on the conversations and the previous two points, is the VLE actually about learning? The anecdotal evidence from the student conversations that I have been having is that is less about learning, and more about access to reliable resources and information, and the main issues that they raise in conversation are about how that plethora of information is presented to them. Should the VLE become an extension of the library, and would that approach, with an emphasis on resource discovery and curation better serve students and their learning?