Can teaching excellence be promoted through the development of digital capabilities?



The question in the title of this blog post was raised by the QAA commissioned research report “Digital capability and teaching excellence: an integrative review exploring what infrastructure and strategies are necessary to support effective use of technology enabled learning (TEL)” (QAA, 2016).

Issues raised in the summary report prompted my colleague Sue Pears and I to reflect on our own practices supporting the effective use of TEL. To gain guidance and ideas we attended the SEDA Spring Conference in Manchester between May 11th and May 12th this year. One of the main conference themes was the current use of metrics, such as those offered by the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), and how fit-for-purpose they were. While opinions varied, there was general consensus that “metrics must be augmented with peer review, case studies and high-quality education and training for teaching” (Ashwin and McLean, 2016: 84), something that was the core to our own thinking.

Throughout the conference, there was a shared concern that if more inquiry-generated knowledge was not generated, it would see development strategies emerging which reacted to the perceived needs of the metrics; strategies which could prove to be irrelevant to the needs of academics in their own institutional contexts. While most saw the benefits in taking a more ‘localised’ approach to knowledge generation, it was with the caveat that is did not lead to a sense of isolated parochialism. To counter any threat of this happening some colleagues stressed the importance of developing professional networks so to share experiences and knowledge.

In an effort to contribute to discussions around the themes raised in the QAA report which prompted our thoughts, we facilitated a session at the conference entitled, “Promoting teaching excellence through the development of digital capabilities: can it be done?” Through our workshop, we set out to prompt participants to develop potential action-orientated inquiries, which could be used to explore the extent to which teaching excellence could be promoted by developing digital capabilities. We wanted to work with people to identify potential inquiry approaches and methods to develop practice-based knowledge which could be used to inform professional development practices. In retrospect, this was a big topic to get to grips with in a 45-minute session. However, it was clear that there was an appetite for such approaches given the level of discussion and feedback we received.

We left the conference buoyed we were on the right track with our action-orientated inquiry approach. However, we left without a clear answer to our workshop question: ‘Can teaching excellence be promoted through the development of digital capabilities?’ Therefore, as part of this blog post, our call to action would be to ask you whether or not this question can be answered in a way which generates practice-based knowledge to inform professional development initiatives.



McLean, M. and Ashwin, P.W.H., 2016. The quality of learning, teaching, and curriculum. In P Scott, J Gallacher & G Parry (eds), New languages and landscapes of higher education. Oxford University Press, pp. 84-102.

QAA, 2016 . Subscriber Research Series 2016-17: Digital Capability and Teaching Excellence. [online].Available at [Accessed 19 May 2017].



Charlie Davis, Senior Digital Practice Advisor, Organisational Development, Nottingham Trent University. @CharlieJJDavis.

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  • Asking if teaching excellence should be promoted through digital capabilities is like asking if pilots should be trained to fly passenger aircraft, or shall we just let anyone into the cockpit and have a go. Higher education students, at least in Australia, are now learning on-line more than they are in the classroom. Their teachers therefore need to be proficient in how to design and deliver this form of education. Before worrying about excellence, I suggest aiming for basic competence in teaching, primarily on-line.

    • Karl says:

      I agree Tom, very basic digital competencies are still missing from a worrying number of academics – even uploading their own materials to a VLE are often seen as something ‘IT should be doing’; engaging these groups in L&T best online practices, and even basic general digital skills, would be very useful

  • Charles Davis says:

    While I don’t disagree with you, I would guard against placing too much emphasis on giving primacy to the development of online competencies. I think it wiser to develop people’s digital competencies so that they can use technological approaches across a range of learning environments.

    • Charles, I suggest those teaching in universities should be first trained in the use of technology enabled learning, through the use of technology enabled learning, as that is the primary way university students now receive instruction. I was required to get an Australian Certificate IV in Training and Assessment, to teach in the Vocational Educational and Training sector. This took a couple of months and was 20% on-line coursework and 80% recognition of prior learning (it cost me about AU$500). I can’t see why university teachers should not be required to have a qualification at least that level.

      • Charles Davis says:

        I can see the benefits in this and I certainly wouldn’t be adverse to doing it. However, I am also mindful that currently in our sector it would have to compete for people’s time with qualifications such as the HEA Fellowships, which I feel are/would be perceived to carry more currency given their emphasis on learning, teaching and assessment (LTA) standards. I acknowledge that technology should be an integral part of any LTA strategies, where appropriate, but I fear not everyone is of that mind, or sees the connections.

        • Charles, I would see training and the HEA fellowships as complementary. The training get you any missing education skills and then HEA fellowship provide recognition you have got them.

  • Shane says:

    An interesting topic with the obvious answer of ‘Yes’, but many (possibly too many?) opinions on how this can be achieved practically by teachers who are not immersed in the latest R&D, and without lots and lots of duplicate efforts leading to organisations and departments each coming up with their own usage scenarios! Look forward to hearing more on the subject.

  • Charles Davis says:

    Hi Shane,

    I totally agree with you. One of the ways we’re trying to address the issues you’ve raised is by supporting people do practitioner based research as part of the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PGCAP). This is with view to developing, changing or building on their existing practices. This is informed by a wider institutional strategy to develop staff’s digital capabilities. How we’re doing this piece of wider work is discussed in this Jisc case study –

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