Analysing for interest

I found three recent IJAD articles on the topic of academic development and educational technology – all from 2013; notably none in the last 12 months. I used them to start thinking about the assumptions that the journal’s readership might have about this particular subject; what they see as ‘given’, and what they see as still open to question.

The first one was… Torrisi-Steele & Drew (2013) The literature landscape of blended learning in higher education: the need for better understanding of academic blended practice. International Journal for Academic Development, 18 (4).

The key argument in this article is that we (academic developers) need to understand the reasons why academics use technology in different ways. Some use it in the service of their existing practices, while for some it accompanies a pedagogic transformation. There seems to be a clear subtext (I’m sure this is not my imagination); a judgement that transformative use is more desirable, and a desire to find a developmental ‘magic bullet’ that will make everyone want to use technology in this way.

For me, it’s not an interesting article by Davis’s (1971) criteria. In the learning technology community these assumptions put down roots over ten years ago. What is interesting to me is that I’m not sure how others in the academic development community would have responded to it. I suspect many would question the message that we all need to be supersizing it on the tech, but I doubt they would feel challenged by it. I think they would just reject it (or not read the article).

Another thing I find interesting is that all the references for this article are very old by learning technology standards – generally at least 6 years old at the time of writing. As an ex-educational technologist, I can confirm that the ideas in this article are about that old as well, and they never really broke into the mainstream with the academic development community – despite several SEDA conferences with ‘digital’ in the theme. In fact, this year SEDA decided we are now ‘post digital’. It doesn’t mean the issues aren’t still slapping us in the face on a daily basis; more likely, everyone with an academic interest in the field lost patience working with regular teachers and went and got themselves a job doling out iPads to the ‘net gen’.

The authors of this particular article talk of blended learning ‘solving’ the issue of large classes, but the ‘problematic’ nature of large classes is always assumed (and no-one ever explains what problem blended learning is ‘solving’… the classes are still large, right?). As a Natural Sciences undergraduate in 1997 I was in a class of three hundred and two. We went to lectures in a large, tiered theatre with a blackboard and a transparency projector. We were always early because we knew we wouldn’t be allowed in if we were late, so we chatted in the foyer. There was a register, and if we missed three classes without good reason we would have been kicked off the course. We took notes and caffeine tablets. If we were feeling confident we asked questions. Sometimes there was a quiz. We went to the library and read the recommended chapters in the recommended books. We went to the lab and did things with onions, rats, dogfish and owl pellets. It all worked fine. I’m not sure how blended learning would have helped. If anything, we needed the structural and social affordances of converging in space and time, otherwise we would have stayed in bed. Tuition fees hadn’t been invented yet; all we had to lose was our parents’ pride.

The simultaneous evolution of tuition fees and VLEs may not be an accident. There is a view that tuition fees have led to a ‘buyers market’; students are paying money so they demand a better service. We have introduced new metrics of comparison (NSS, KIS) to help students decide where to put their money. Does it really work like that? I would have thought students are – as they always have done – thinking primarily about their future careers. They will go to the place that will look best on their CVs – usually the one with the highest entry grades – as before. What has changed is that students are now more desperate; £9,000pa is simply too much to throw away, and that driver actually allows us to provide an arguably poorer service; to replace group tutorials with a Moodle discussion forum (for example). How about the view that technology enables us to get by with larger classes, and is therefore a collusive factor in the movement towards an undesirable production-consumption model of higher education?

There is also a lot of talk in the article of blended/online learning forcing a pedagogical transformation; a move from didactic to dialogic learning that is given as a reason why teachers should engage with learning technologies. Again… really? I had an e-mail from Coursera the other day with some recommended free online courses each comprising a series of video lectures. Yes, you can probably discuss the videos on a forum somewhere (although I didn’t see one), but we also had that facility in the lectures at Royal Holloway – it was called ‘the coffee break’ (also regular group tutorials).

So – I think I have it – the reason why these articles are probably not viewed as interesting by the academic development community. They all start from a premise like this: ‘In recent years, many higher education institutions have adopted flexible learning… hence the need for staff to gain skills appropriate to blended and online teaching…’. This premise is a ‘given’; never questioned, presumably because those writing these articles are unlikely to want to argue themselves out of a job. I believe that – particularly in the UK – the academic development community feels that the jury is still out on flexible learning; that the demand for traditional campus-based education is clearly not going anywhere, that universities should generally stick to what their infrastructure is optimised for, and we should leave the distance learning to the OU, the MOOCs to Udacity/Coursera, the e-learning to Epigeum and the software tutorials to The MOOC hype cycle has been and gone, with most managing to persuade their VCs that this is not a bandwagon we need to jump on. In more geographically dispersed countries (e.g. Canada and Australia – where this article originates), there may be more of a lean towards blended/online teaching skills for all – who knows. What I do know is that learning to teach effectively online is a very long process that demands both passion and resilience, and the direction you take with it probably depends very much on the reasons why you wanted to teach online in the first place. For me, I’d lost confidence in my ability to teach face-to-face. For my friend Paul, it’s because it allows him to work flexibly. My needs have changed; my friend’s haven’t – he is still passionate about online learning.

This article – and the other two I have read – are probably not interesting to most of IJAD’s readership because they are products of an opposing perspective but do not argue the case for that perspective. They take as given something that is unfounded in the eyes of the reader and therefore the reader’s assumptions are not effectively challenged. I would be willing to hazard a guess that the academic development community sees those who work and write in this field as blinkered technocrats. It is this assumption that I would like my article to challenge. I am personally ambivalent about online learning and learning technologies, and I want to interrogate the views of the teachers I work with, given their recent immersive experience on our blended PG Cert programme. I would like to answer the question ‘why do teachers feel differently about learning technologies?’ without assuming that they should be using them.


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