When You Ask The Question, “Are Learning Technologies Fit For Purpose?” #digifest15

“Asking the question is probably the most important thing.”

Lawrie Phipps made the point as he finished chairing a debate over, “Are learning technologies fit for purpose?”

It may sound dull, but his point was the best way to sum up the session between Dave White and Donna Lanclos at the Jisc Digifest 2015.

Earlier in the day, Anna Notaro told me that she doesn’t like either/or questions. While it does help me write short and punchy tweets, I do agree.

So, are learning technologies fit for purpose?

It’s an impossible question, as it involves individual decisions as much as it does group decisions. It involves education providers and administrators as much as it does learners.

Do learning technologies fit YOUR purpose? Can these tools give you what you want? And if you don’t know what you want, is this method working for you?

Dave White said that learning technologists and other professionals forget how experienced and confident they are. He suggested that if you could go back to when you were 18–just starting out at university–you would be far less likely to have the same drive to make your point. The nervewracking experience of speaking in a lecture or seminar consisted mainly of trying not to make a fool out of yourself. Newbies to the system don’t want to fall at the first hurdle. There’s so much at stake, or so it feels anyway.

One solution is to provide safe spaces so that students can build their confidence. This requires a somewhat locked-in approach using internal systems, rather than pointing toward online services that can publish work for all the world to see.

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Use a VLE or use WordPress? Donna Lanclos explained that institutions have made a promise to educate their students. Learning and subsequent application of publicly used resources will provide the best opportunity for students to develop worthwhile skills. Using a VLE, she argued, doesn’t provide the same learning opportunity. Lanclos expressed difficulty in seeing why it’s so difficult to assist students in confident use of open web tools and to invest money saved from ditching VLEs on hiring more staff instead.

Questions from the audience were useful, as they looked at the flaws in the either/or questioning:

  • Something isn’t fit for purpose, but what is it? Is it the technology, is it the institution, is it something else? This needs assessing.
  • Why are we talking about a choice? You can have both a VLE and an open web.
  • We need to equip people to be competent in the open web. This requires a continuum model. Not just about knowledge in terms of content, but which technologies to use and when?
  • The reason we have VLEs is due to standards issues. Until you can bring diversity together in a reasonable format, a VLE is a practical necessity.
  • What IS the purpose of learning technologies? They are fit for purpose only if you identify what their purpose is.
  • You may want to use a social service for personal reasons, but that doesn’t mean you wish to use it as part of your course.

Lanclos said that it’s important to take responsibility for students’ learning when they do not have the understanding or experience of necessary tools. So, she continued, why is that different via the open web than through a VLE? Her closing argument stated that university is a much more holistic project than VLEs allow for. The fact they are locked in ends up sheltering students from the outside world and more practical learning.

White closed by explaining that learning technologies reflect the purpose our institutions have chosen to take. They provide a platform to frame learning around the course, rather than the individual. People can be helped through the process of education.

This takes us back to the remark Lawrie Phipps made to close the session:

“Asking the question is probably the most important thing.”

I saw neither Lanclos nor White as particularly wrong in their assertions. Such an ambiguous and open question is important because it shows how diverse the student population has become over the decades. And yet, as one audience member remarked, pedagogy over the last 20 years hasn’t been particularly transformed.

Asking the question, “Are learning technologies fit for purpose?” is a great way to continue exploring transformation that requires technology. But rather than focus on the technology at the centre, focus on the learner, on society, and on the future.