‘Rhetoric and Reality’ – critical perspectives on educational technology from Down Under

Critical thinking thrived at the 2014 ascilite annual conference (24th-26th November), held in Dunedin, New Zealand, with presentations interrogating claims on a number of themes.

Shane Dawson (University of South Australia) in a thought-provoking keynote questioned the value being extracted from analytics software across the HE sector, viewing the technology as a blunt instrument in the way that it is being implemented. To truly exploit learning analytics, universities need to combine support from faculty, administrative and IT and learning technology staff, as well as researchers (data wranglers) who can filter data and create outputs to address the ‘right’ questions on institutional learning and teaching issues, rather than simply work from the generic dashboard outputs currently being offered. Shane argued that a cultural shift through a combined services approach is needed to shape meaningful interventions in support of learning and teaching – otherwise the analytics data will merely serve as an administrative tool with little added value to the institution. (click here to view Shane’s slides)

Birgit Loch (Swinburne University) highlighted the risks of unqualified acceptance of flipped learning design methods for some disciplines. Reflecting on a flipped design for a mathematics course that she delivered, she found that 22% of the class did not engage with the pre-class activities or struggled to engage with them, which restricted their participation in the face-to-face activities on campus. She questioned the transferability of flipped design to disciplines such as mathematics, focusing on the maturity of undergraduate students who are often targeted for this style of learning, yet may not have the requisite academic skills and self-discipline to engage effectively with the front-loading of conceptual learning through lecture recordings and pre-class activities.

Continuing the myth-busting theme, Maree Gosper (Macquarie University) reported on a longitudinal study of Australian students and their technology usage, comparing survey results from 2010 and 2013 as a way of validating technology adoption trends. (Click here to go to the Macquarie project) The most common technology demand from students is for lecture recordings and podcasts to be made available. The hype around MOOCs appears to have had little bearing on the undergraduate experience: 77% of respondents had never heard of them and only 7% had actually enrolled on one of them. There are clear parallels here to the UK sector, with Jisc /NUS research studies reporting similar findings on mobile usage and the demand for interactive content amongst UK students (summarised in this blog post), whilst MOOC courses appear so far to have had little impact.

The conference also had a forward-looking agenda in considering national priorities for learning technology development over the short to medium-term. Representatives from the New Zealand Ministry of Education promoted national discussion on the integration and uptake of new education delivery models, and invite institutions to describe how they are tackling innovation.

There were numerous take-aways from this conference, including the presentation of a set of e-learning guidelines to inform course design and delivery, addressing the role and responsibilities of e-learning managers, organisational leaders and Quality Assurance bodies (handy when preparing for an institutional audit!). One theme that a number of presentations focused on was staff development and deficiencies with the ‘deficit model’ which predominates across the sector. Typically this focuses on identifying and addressing what teaching staff do not know in their digital practice through guides and workshops, rather than addressing the context in which technology may be employed to support instructional goals. Maria Northcote (Avondale College of Higher Education) was one of many speakers to address this theme, highlighting how the College has repositioned its staff development focus, moving from workshops to the embedding of showcase materials within its institutional VLE, enabling staff to ‘graze’ for ideas through themed case studies and then drill down into detail if they wanted to pursue a particular approach. This seems like a sensible approach in engaging academics through case-based illustrations rather than through functional ‘how to’ cookbooks, which fail to acknowledge the academic as an active agent in technology design. Food for thought indeed!

Finally, ascilite will be actively promoting their own Australasian brand of the CMALT scheme to support the professional development of their e-learning professionals.

Full conference reports can be read on Dr Walker’s blog.

Dr. Richard Walker, E-Learning Development Team Manager, University of York. richard.walker@york.ac.uk

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member

1 Comment

  • tom abeles says:

    Interesting report. The problem here seems to be that there is no serious addressment that the current model for HEI’s for the future has been neglected in favor of looking at the variety of patchwork tech options to “improve” the existing system. Lack of student knowledge about options such as MOOC’s and the concern on analytics assumes that the current model will persist in light of the changing and emergent alternatives.

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