Taking forward change in technology-enhanced education

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 1 April 2010

I had a great day yesterday in Bolton at a JISC-sponsored Strategy Cascade event for institutional teams, which was focused upon “the wider debate around what technology can offer our institutions, and how to most effectively harness technology in ways that are sensitive to the specific needs of institutions” and their stakeholders. The session, led by Keith Smyth from Edinburgh Napier and Mark Johnson from the University of Bolton, was an excellent example of grounded, deliberative action. It focused upon achieving an institutional understanding of the contested nature of technology-enhanced learning [TEL] as HEIs struggle to review their strategies and plans.

I was asked to kick the event off with some thoughts on the issues that I see as important in this debate. My slides highlight my activist, political position around the highly contested nature of the value of TEL, and against techno-determinism. The key themes I wanted to highlight were as follows.

  1. Values: do we understand the place of TEL in the idea of the University. Do we recognise and debate our institutional or educational or personal or humane values? How do technologies help us to realise or diminish these values? How do technologies impact the social relations that emerge around these values?
  2. Disruption: we are experiencing disruption, the scale of which may prove overwhelming. This is focused upon: massive public sector debt that will impact our spaces for action and activity; the realities of climate change science, which ought to affect our engagement with technology; peak oil and energy prices/security, which will impact our use of technology and our approaches to resource management; the impact of personal technologies on power and control at the centre or the boundaries of formal and informal classroom and curriculum settings, and the concomitant need for critical pedagogies; and the impact of non-institutional technologies on the value, place and space of the institution.
  3. Contestation 1: the policy and implementation landscape demonstrates complexity of use, expectation and delivery of educational technology within competing value-sets and practices. One space in which this is made manifest is the discussion over open educational resources, as a rider for discussions over the openness of higher education and HEIs that are [being set-up to be] competing. This discussion ought to take place against an ideological and political [small ‘p’] backdrop, which looks at what we stand for institutionally and societally.
  4. Planning: in thinking about institutional change Mark Johnson highlighted the work of Richard Gombrich [after Karl Popper] in developing approaches to piecemeal social engineering. I am concerned with how we are able to provide secure core institutional spaces that enable staff and students to position and become themselves, and to act in the world. Mark Stubbs at MMU has blogged about a vision of joined-up systems that is a powerful description of how institutions can support individuals in making sense of their institution [socially, administratively and academically], by aligning key events, data, processes and technologies, and how “mavericks” [an emergent participant-generated term] can be encouraged to innovate around the edges of the HEI within a supportive set of spaces. In taking this forward we need to see change as institutionally-led, and so as more than a project: it is a programme of work focused upon catalysing flexibility, diversity, modularity and feedback, which then delivers benefits aligned to key outcomes. At DMU we are developing a portfolio of projects to engage this approach.
  5. Contestation 2: we need to know more about the interplay between notions of personalisation and models of the curriculum. In thinking about this I highlighted some DMU examples of: mentoring as a key concept in learning design; thinking around technologically-flexible and modular “curriculum learning environments”; and recasting spaces for life-wide learning opportunities, where students can demonstrate activity in the world, and be accredited for it. This is complex and ill-understood, and techno-determinist approaches to its management are problematic.

I ended by focusing upon a series of issues related to power and emerging self-awareness and action. In particular, I was concerned to reflect upon whether institutionalised approaches reclaim and neutralise innovation within traditional, safe paradigms, and whether this neutralises agency. I wondered whether we know enough about the specific strategies that are deployed by learners using social media, as they become resilient learners and citizens. Finally I wondered whether we acknowledge and care for those who are marginalised or who risk marginalisation though our curriculum practices and values.

The activities that the participants undertook were focused upon: realising the value of different perspectives in the change agenda; our aspirations and who sets the agenda for change; the tensions between monolithic approaches and enabling diversity; and whether we do the simple stuff well enough to enable people to undertake meaningful activity. I was left with three key points that I wished to make as a plenary, with one caveat. These are captured in this Strategy Cascade plenary presentation.

However, I also added that we have travelled a long way in the last decade, in terms of developing the tools and communities that can engage with critical pedagogy and challenge the development of educational norms. There is much to hope for in this celebration of the possible.

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