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Is digital technology changing learning and teaching? The big debate from Digifest 2017

Amber ThomasNeil Morris

Is digital technology making fundamental changes to learning and teaching, transforming it in ways that were unimaginable before the advent of the internet? Or has the digital revolution been overhyped as magical pixie dust that can cure all teaching ills?

Digifest is pitting two experts in the field against each other in this big digital technology debate.

Neil Morris, director of digital learning at the University of Leeds, is arguing for the motion that digital technology is fundamentally changing learning and teaching.

Amber Thomas, service owner: academic technology support at the University of Warwick is arguing against the motion

Digital technology is fundamentally changing learning and teaching - Neil Morris

The widespread availability of mobile and desk-based devices with incredible computing power and functionality means that learners are now able to consume and interact with learning content provided by their teachers, by their peers, and by individuals and organisations around the world. And they can do this in ways that were not possible before the widespread advent of the internet.

That’s a fundamental shift in the way that education is available to learners, not least because it makes it accessible to those who would have previously found it extremely difficult to enter formal education. On a global scale, people are now able to learn in ways that would not have been possible without digital technology, for example using massive open online courses (MOOCs).

I think there are three main things that digital technology is changing, none of which were imaginable before we started to integrate digital technology into education.

First, it’s about the flexibility of learning, which means being able to alter the place, the pace and the mode of learning. The growing use of blended learning provision, hybrid and fully online distance learning courses is offering choices for learners about how to integrate their education with other aspects of their lives. This is a fundamental change in the access to learning as a result of digital technology.

Secondly, there is a fundamental change in the way that learners are able to gain knowledge, skills and competencies through the use of technology, which is going to be useful for their future employment in our increasingly digital world. Learners are gaining digital skills when learning online and educators are increasingly recognising the need to focus on honing these skills to cope with the massive amounts of information that needs to be searched, refined, categorised and understood.

Finally, there’s a fundamental change in the way that learners are able to interact with other individuals, both their peers and educators, from all around the world as a result of digital technology.  This is supporting increased cultural awareness and globalisation.

From the teaching perspective, digital technology is enabling teachers to create more interactive, engaging, flexible learning materials in a range of digital and multimedia formats and make them available to students online. Educators are also able to teach in a variety of different ways in the classroom, through the use of in-class technologies, online materials and students’ own mobile devices. These changes are enabling educators to have a more diverse set of pedagogical approaches to support their learners, which means that they can be more inclusive in their teaching methods.

Digital technology supports teachers’ in-class activities, it supports their online content and it enables educators to interact with learners via online classroom technologies. This enables them to be more flexible in the way that they communicate with learners so that they are not limited to face-to-face meetings in their office at set times.

Overall, it is undeniable that digital technology is already fundamentally altering learning and teaching. However, there is so much more transformation that is required and is possible with digital and this full potential will only be realised by organisations and teachers recognising that change is needed, and investing in the infrastructure, strategy and development needed to support it.  

Digital technology is not fundamentally changing learning and teaching - Amber Thomas

It is undeniable higher education is changing. But is digital technology the cause or the symptom?

The drivers for changes in teaching and learning in higher education are socio-economic, related to the way student fees are funded, changes in the job market, the currency of a degree and the skills people need. As a result of those drivers we see technologies used in particular ways.

Over the last ten or 20 years we've seen a massive expansion of higher education, and some of the use of technology that we see is in response to that.

Take lecture capture technologies. Critics argue that lecture capture technologies give universities an excuse to avoid tackling overcrowded lecture theatres. But the need was already there: student numbers have been growing for twenty years and recording has been possible all that time.

The last five years have bought affordable institutional scale solutions, and students have started demanding it. There is now a solution  to meet a clearly articulated demand, that's why lecture capture practices are growing. The need already existed. If we don't understand what drives the use of technology in higher education we could be putting effort into areas that aren't going to get traction. We find ourselves promoting eportfolios to the wrong groups of students, when what they're asking for is lecture capture.

Or take MOOCs. It was widely assumed that moocs would be useful for preparing students before they came to university or promoting undergraduate recruitment. The statistics on MOOC uptake show that they are primarily taken by people in their 30s and 40s who already have a degree. The way we thought the story would pan out, with certain drivers and certain forms of demand, is not quite the way that it's gone. We should learn the lessons as we go.

One of the risks of not understanding the lessons is that we buy into the idea that digital technology is magical pixie dust that will fix all the problems. But digital is the end point of the chain. In fact, the real change lies in the enablers to creating a great digital product or digital course - things like changing the way that course teams work, putting real structure into learning designs, course objectives and learning outcomes. That's the work that has the profound effect, not the fact that it's digital.

For people like myself, who work in institutions and are there to help solve problems and support progress in teaching and learning, the conversations we need to have with academics are about what their course is about, how the learning is designed, how their teams are structured and what time they've got put aside for running an online activity. Those aren't technical concerns – and that can be quite disappointing for those who believe that we have the magical pixie dust of technology to scatter over their courses for them.

The danger of the magical pixie dust fallacy is that digital technology is an easy thing to blame. If you've not got your course right, you can treat it as a tech fail. Whereas, actually, the thing that didn't work might have been your learning design or your assumption of students' prior knowledge or the group dynamics in an activity - but it is much easier to blame digital technology. And that's why we really need to understand where it's useful, to learners and teachers.

Otherwise it's all just snake oil.

Digifest 2017

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This is one of a series of features on topics covered at this year's Digifest, which is taking place on 14-15 March 2017.  

Amber and Neil took part in the debate, digital technology is fundamentally changing learning and teaching in higher education, on day one. Full details for all this year's sessions as well as many of the presentation slides can be found in the Digifest 2017 programme.

You can join the conversation on Twitter using #digifest17.