Student Achievement in the Digital Age: How emergent technologies can enhance the academic experience

I’m presenting at The Northern Universities Consortium (NUCCAT) annual conference in Manchester tomorrow.

The abstract I agreed in appended below, alongside the key points that I will try to make about the issues and practices that are affecting how higher education institutions address the intersection of student achievement (with a proxy of future earnings and employability), digital transformation (in order to generate economic growth/productivity), and the wider academic experience (bridging institutional/social spaces and the public/private).


This discussion will highlight educational developments in student and staff digital literacy. It will highlight some of the good, bad and ugly institutional considerations that emerge from international project-work on: technology-enabled, alternative forms of accreditation such as open badges; learning analytics and data mining; education-as-a-service rooted in cloud computing; student-as-producer, connected to personalisation and content creation/curation; and digital footprint and professional identity.

The examples developed will focus upon both institutional and hosted solutions, like Blackboard, Moodle, WordPress and Turnitin, alongside technologies used for non-institutional, informal learning. The institutional and individual implications of these innovations will be related to strategies for professional development, technology and data infrastructures, and governance/legal issues. As a result participants will be asked to consider how their own practices might be affected, and what they might do as a result.

Key Points

ONE. I will discuss an institutional space that is framed in three ways. The first relates to digital transformation and productivity, as it emerges from the policy space for higher education. The second asks us to reconsider which students’ academic experiences are we referring, when we talk about achievement and enhancement? The third tries to situate the relationship between technologies and student achievement, against emergent pedagogical practices.

TWO. [slide 5] The policy/practice space for English HE and technology is being reduced to discussions about performance and productivity related to teaching intensity, student commitment to learning, and the nature of the institutional learning environment (c.f. HE Green Paper). These discussions are shaped by HM Treasury Productivity Plan, which grafts education onto ideas of digital transformation and market-led disruption of established positions. Together these two policy documents situate the relationship between education and technology in terms of human capital theory. The Small Business, Enterprise and Employability Act (2015) includes a section on ‘Education Evaluation’ that promotes human capital development (skills, expertise, employability, intellectual capital, entrepreneurialism and so on), as a catalyst for further financialisation and market-driven innovation [see slide 5 and David Willetts’ view of technology and educational disruption].

The terrain of English HE is also affected by trade liberalisation and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Innovation Partnership, through which education services are likely to be in-scope. This matters because technology enables and is enabled by a rich, transnational ecosystem that involves: academics; publishers; HE institutions; venture capital; non-profits [see slide 6, on the MOOC Universe]. In supporting institutions in making sense of this shifting terrain, Jisc is working on building digital capability with a focus on digital leadership, digital pedagogy/literacy, and digital efficiencies. Here institutions are thinking less about technologies (Blackboard, WordPress, Turnitin, whatever), and instead are thinking about services for students (Replay, Social, Assessment, Learning Resources etc.).

THREE. [slide 7] The interactions between policy and practice change the contexts that enable student achievement, both inside and outside the institution. These contexts are rooted in ideas of “intensity”, “productivity” and “gain”. In order to deliver these, institutions are thinking less about technologies and more about aggregated services for students and staff. These include the following.

  • Data services: learning analytics; open data; c.f. emerging concerns over The Patriot Act, Safe Harbour, and information governance
  • Replay/Learning Content: open repositories; enterprise reading lists; multimedia
  • Accreditation: open badges; e-portfolios; competency-based accreditation
  • Personalisation: universal design for learning; assistive technologies; productivity tools; mobile
  • Social: open education (MOOCs); cloud-based services

FOUR. [slides 8-13] There is a hegemonic or dominant view of students that emerges through the imposition of specific technologies as universal for learning, teaching, and assessment (e.g. learning management systems like Blackboard, multimedia tools like Panopto, or assessment tools like Turnitin). This applies across all levels and for all students, in spite of the developmental basis of those technologies and the enterprise implementation of them.

However, we might question whether these technologies, and our related pedagogic approaches [flipped classroom, bring your own device, universal design for learning, and so on] are enhancing the academic experience of specific students and therefore alienating/disabling others?

The dominant, universal narrative of technology is connected to universal ideas of “progress”, “efficiency”, “employability”. Thus, Pearson speak of technologies in an ecosystem that is: more global; more mobile; holistic; being absolutely obsessed with learning outcomes. Here emergent technologies are linked to the production and circulation of data, which dominates the landscape.

There are important, alternative uses of technology outside formal HE. One such is ds106 (digital storytelling 106), which enables community-based, transnational learning and accreditation. The ds106 space is user-created and curated, and connects to issues of: student-produced, multimedia content; collectively-produced and assessed student outputs or products; the ability to remix and repurpose content, including assessments; alternative forms of accreditation, including open, peer reviewed badging for skills, practices and literacies; and, the relationship between accredited activities and activities that enable sharing of the studet experience (e.g. a radio station).

A more militant story is told by student groups inside formal HE, which are forcing institutions to confront the legacies of colonialism and a racialised curriculum. These include the Why is My Curriculum White? and Rhodes Must Fall Collectives. They force us to question whether emergent technologies can enhance the academic experience for all students, if we do not understand the range of those experience. Does our use of technologies reinforce specific world views and cultural perceptions? How might we use them to challenge established forms of learning, teaching and assessment? For example, how does the digital content that we make available shape a particular, cultural frame of reference? Do our strategies for multimedia enhancement, like lecture capture (an awful phrase), risk some students being unable to speak in class, because they fear being recorded? Do our strategies for e-assessment increase stress on some groups of students?

FIVE. [slides 14-24] The relationship between emergent technologies and student achievement is shaped in a number of ways. I will focus on four.

The first is the increasing complexity of ecosystems available inside and beyond formal HE. This means that institutions are looking to create services for the delivery of: content; assessment; multimedia; social learning; personalised data/information. These are developed digitally, and mean that institutions are extending the backbone of their learning management systems (e.g. Blackboard) through: assessment tools (e.g. Turnitin); social tools (e.g. WordPress/academic commons, plus Campus Pack); interaction tools (e.g. PollEverywhere, TurningPoint, DisplayNote); content tools (e.g. Panopto, Talis Reading Lists); Productivity Tools (e.g. Google Drive, Office365); and collaboration tools (e.g. Blackboard Collaborate, MS Lync, Skype). This is mapped historically for DMU here and here. However, note that Blackboard have a range of platforms (technologies) in Learn, Collaborate, Connect, Mobile an Analytics, which themselves connect to other services (e.g. assessment and feedback).

The second is competency-based learning, like standardised testing, and which can be modelled and enable normalisation and sharing across programmes in different institutions. Here digital transformation grounded in data and content architectures, and e-assessment and e-feedback policies, map onto and potentially change pedagogic practices. Issues of academic autonomy, and tensions between what assessment is to measure and why are live.

The third is the ability to connect institutional and public/personal technologies, so that students and staff can operate across boundaries. This is a more networked approach, witnessed in public good projects like DMU’s Square Mile, and in the Domain of One’s Own project at University of Mary Washington. However, it also needs higher levels of digital literacy amongst staff and students, in order to engage with issue of professionalism, privacy, data protection and interoperability/sharing. It is also affected by institutional policies for social media use and codes of conduct/regulations.

The final point is digital transformation, which emerges from partnerships between HE and technology forms, but also from innovations in network/storage and communications. These innovations are rooted in flows of data and content, and a widening of communications channels, and they tend to blur the boundaries between the institution and the public space (e.g. in the idea of the Cloud). As a result they impact staff and student digital literacy (the skills, knowledge and practices that an individual or community can utilise to work on-line). The Digilit Leicester project is an example of wide-ranging digital, educational change.

SIX. I end with four caveats.

  • Think about data governance at all levels, especially in light of the EU ruling on safe harbour.
  • Think about how to support staff and student management of their own digital identity and footprint, for instance focused upon issues of professionalism and e-safety.
  • Think about digital privacy, for instance student/staff rights to anonymity in spaces that are to be recorded. Do technologies affect our ability to create safe spaces for dialogue?
  • Think about digital literacy, for instance the alignment of staff/student digital skills and practices.

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