technology

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.

key

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.

Technology Can Help The Learning Process, But It’s Not The Whole Answer

Technology Learning Process

Times Higher Education reported on a “Future Proofing Universities” seminar. Sixth-form students at the event shared their appreciation of technology, but warned that it should not be used to replace established methods of teaching.

In my last post, I stressed how important it is to keep finding new ways to learn, so long as past approaches are not ignored.

I see three purposes in which technology can assist and enhance learning that students will be grateful for:

  1. Choice – In my last post, I stressed how important it is to keep finding new ways to learn. They don’t replace what has gone before, but they open up availability to those who cannot engage with or do not have the necessary resources to access current methods. Breakthroughs in technology continue to open new doors. The only reason to close old doors is when all use and interest has disappeared. Dead isn’t dead until it is truly gone. While it exists, there is a place for it, even if it has been demoted from a previous position of prominence.
  2. Accessibility – Preparation, organisation, ease of use. Technology should help facilitate in these areas. That’s why a university website with lots of video and opportunities to connect can win over potential students. Think about what comes before the learning and what allows the learning to blossom as opposed to what directly delivers the learning.
  3. Combination – Times Higher Education noted that a Year 13 student said universities should “combine not replace“. An additional strand to current learning methods is appreciated far more than a different approach to methods altogether. Either let the new strand form a relevant part of the process or introduce it as one choice among several (see Point 1).

Rise of the Tools?

Advances in technology enhance the scope for building new tools. Universities are, understandably, trying to make the most of the new technology and tools.

At the same time, it’s easy to forget that tools are not the answer. The answer lies with you:

“…tools are only tools. Rely on them & you let tools rule you. Learn to use them, don’t seek their help.” – [Source]

Pick a question… Technology forms only part of the answer. We can build the rest of the answer through our interactions with technology. Where that takes us, who knows?

And since we’re creating the road as we’re walking down it, that’s why it’s better to control the tools. We may not be able to determine the future exactly how we want it, but we should at least try through our own choices.

Farewell Facebook? Au Revoir Apps?

Laptop

For those who move away from Facebook entirely, there are no doubt many others who haven’t left, but do far less on the site than before. Talk to parents, share unproblematic content, organise a few events…’harmless’ use can continue.

For everything else, new tools do the job. Students go where the family aren’t. They seek out specific communities of people. They form private networks away from prying eyes so they can keep in touch with their offline friends.

You don’t need to pretend to be several different personalities online. All you need to do is share particular types of information in particular places.

Say you buy a meal at McDonalds. You don’t explain to the cashier that you sometimes go to Burger King too. You don’t go to Nandos with your mates and announce that you also went with your Mum when she was visiting.

Your actions are public, but you keep the situations apart. Ever had one of those times when stuff clashed? Awkward.

A More Private Public?

When you’re online, you have new safeguards to consider, but it works in a similar way. Information, status updates and messages tend to linger. Plus, it’s easy enough for people to piece the information together and get a better picture of your actions. But when it comes to backing away from family, old school friends, and casual acquaintances, most bases are covered.

Information that you want strictly limited and kept away from particular individuals must be handled away from public services. If you broadcast stuff that you don’t want certain people to see, the safest option is not to broadcast it at all or do it in such a way that (almost) guarantees privacy.

And I don’t mean posting an embarrassing two-second Snapchat photo to someone in the hope that they don’t take a screenshot and share it with others. It means not posting the photo in the first place.

To App Or To Interact?

Facebook shouldn’t be concerned solely about young people who stop using the site. They should also think about those who have changed the way they use the service. Why? Because it changes the way they engage with the stuff that makes money. Everything changes…the way they see adverts, how long they spend on the site, their opinion of the service offered, the quality of the information they transmit, and so on.

When interest dwindles further, or if parents migrate to other services where their kids are hanging out (whether the kids like it or not…?), the knock-on effect could see older users moving away from Facebook too. This is all long-term stuff, which means the company won’t be resting on their laurels.

But is there a truly viable way for any social media players to keep up momentum and remain a solid player for many years to come?

I no longer think in terms of the sites and apps that people use. I’m more interested in the way they interact and the type of things they want to experience. Changes in these areas are potentially more telling than a service that’s popular at that particular moment. All it takes is one minor update or the next big thing to come along and all bets are off.

What are your favourite apps?

Now think about your answer. Will they still be your favourite apps next month? Next year? In a decade?

If you want to influence young people and connect directly with them right now, the big apps of the day matter.

But if you’re more interested in the overarching psychology behind the choices people make and the way people like to engage with each other, it’s time to look deeper than today’s top performer.

We’re Not Stereotypes, But We Share Similar Values

One thing you don’t want to do is assume that young people are wildly different to those in older generations. We all do things differently, but that doesn’t mean we want different things in the end.

People act the way they do because they have developed into that state. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail. No matter how hard we try, we can’t form an accurate picture of each individual. We boil personalities down into stereotypes. But look closely and you quickly see a more complex reality that’s not so easy to summarise.

A Communispace survey found that people’s values stay roughly similar, no matter how old you are. Issues that were important way back are still pretty important now.

And younger people aren’t sharing their life stories online. Most of their private and personal matters are not broadcast. Mistakes can be made and promises broken, but we’re not witnessing a rise in explicitly open individuals who don’t care what others read about them.

We may be happier to communicate online that in years before, but the tools weren’t previously available. Advances in technology allow us to do things we couldn’t do a year or two ago, let alone decades back. These technological advances change actions and experiences far more than they do values and opinions.

No matter where you end up in years to come, the app won’t change you, but you might change the app.

Actions and Experiences

How Will Students Live and Learn in the Future? #HEFutures

Last week, I attended the launch of “Living and Learning in 2034” [PDF] about the future of higher education. I was part of the project team, so I didn’t want to miss the event!

The report looks at how the student experience could change in coming years and considers the future wants and needs of students under a number of scenarios.

Visions of the future. Not quite like this... (photo by seemann)

Visions of the future. Not quite like this… (photo by seemann)

There was loads of great discussion on the night, including a great question and answer session that you can see highlights from below.

Student Living

Mark Allan, Chief Executive of UNITE Group, kicked off the evening by explaining why student living is at the heart of HE. Why not simply the student, as the government’s 2011 White Paper suggested? Because the experience is broad and all-embracing. Allan said that it’s important to try to understand and interpret future student interests, especially since students are not all the same.

While there is a current trend of seeing university as a necessity for employability and future success, that doesn’t mean everyone looks to higher education in this way. It also doesn’t mean the future will play out this way. However, this document does recognise current trends coming into play and uses them as a base (ten key trends are described in the report).

Study Patterns and Ethos

Paul Harris, Group Strategy and Commercial Director at UNITE, then talked about the prospect of new stakeholders making a huge impact on the higher education sector in coming years. It is not clear where that will take matters, he explained, because there are already fundamental uncertainties that will make an impact on HE futures.

He also questioned whether shorter and more intensive study patterns were on the horizon. Three year degrees may be the norm now, but shifting needs may speed development of 18-month and two-year courses.

Harris concluded with a strong point on ethos. While general attitudes within society are not always the most obvious consideration, they are a key issue that can make a huge impact, both nationally and globally.

We respond to each other and are aware of opinions that are forming. As such, a local economy could be booming or busting, but the final say on how that is perceived could be down to how the public react and respond to the circumstances. Even a bleak economic outlook can be played positively, so it would be wrong to ignore the ethos in society.

Ruled by Technology

One highlight from the event was one student’s dystopian vision of what could occur if technology pushed our minds (and our time) further away from our control. Does technology drive people or do people drive technology?

An abridged version of the student story can be found in the report. I told Cameron, the author, that I found his portrayal vivid and amusing. However, I continued, I’d stop laughing if his story became a reality.

Continue the Discussion

The end of the evening saw some brilliant questions from the floor. It helped the idea that the document is very much a living discussion. Among the questions and subsequent answers on the night were:

Might students in the future want to study in more than one place in the world?
Climate change may force people to stay closer to home in the future, forcing the hand on this one. But if travel continues to happen as it is, some students may prefer to get a range of experiences nationally and even around the globe. What we see as modular today may expand to single modules in several different institutions, but all part of a particular qualification.

Which scenario is currently most likely to play out?
We have no reliable crystal ball. Even as the report was being researched, opinions on the most likely scenario seemed to be changing. In addition, there’s nothing to say that different parts of the country could see different scenarios based on local circumstances.

These scenarios each impact attitudes to education and lifelong learning. Will universities plot out possibilities based on each scenario?
The hope is that the conversation will continue and expand. We must be prepared for many outcomes and it would not be sensible to assume a single course, no matter how obvious it appears to someone. Ignoring possible risks is a risk in itself.

Students discussing accommodation on TheStudentRoom focus very much on value for money and location. How will this change in the future, if at all?
If environment can bring more success, value will be drawn out and noticed. Success means different things and that can be drawn out from a person’s environment. That hasn’t been cracked yet in this country and there are many opportunities.
With £9k fees, students are now looking much more closely at what type of experience they want. Is it employer based, international, lifelong and learning focused, or something deliberately unique to a person? Universities in the United States are focusing on the student experience a great deal at the moment and some pointers could be taken from there. However, with spiralling costs, it is important to also be careful.

Your Thoughts?

A blog has been set up for the report, which will feature more ideas and content, over at hefutures.wordpress.com. There is already a graphic showcasing four of the possible students of the future.

What is your vision of the future? Leave a comment here or tweet your thoughts with the hashtag #HEFutures.