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Is today’s educational technology (ed-tech) fit for purpose?

By Irrum Ali, on 12 November 2015

ed-tech eventIs today’s educational technology (ed-tech) fit for purpose? That was the question posed during Tuesday 10 November’s panel session. A variety of speakers – academics, business leaders and UCL students – collectively sought to find out if there was an answer.

The evening began with short statements from the eight panellists, effectively answering the question before it had been ‘debated’. The starting points of the eight panellists showed how little consensus there is on how technology should work in education. Some argued that ed-tech needs to be productive for the teacher; it isn’t bespoke enough for what teachers are trying to do and often there is confusion about its purpose. Further comments pointed towards ed-tech’s lack of focus on the user experience.

Beginning with a challenge faced by ed-tech, the panel considered whether collaborative learning was enabled, or hindered, by today’s technology. The CEOs of tech companies on the panel argued for a more systematic, research-based approach to show its impact on collaboration, and suggested that there may be issues within higher education itself that work against its use. They also mentioned that teachers find ed-tech time consuming.

The two UCL students on the panel reported that technology is not currently being used to encourage collaboration, and that if collaboration is happening, it is not necessarily driven by the teacher. Meanwhile the academics lamented that managing content between technologies needs to be improved so that connectivity and collaboration become easier.

Questions were then welcomed from the floor.

Q: Does educational technology reflect an institutional problem?

Rajay Naik (Chief Executive, Keypath): We should make sure that ed-tech is incorporated in a way appropriate to British institutions: we are slower, but we do it better.

Sareh Heidari (UCL Nanotechnology PhD student): Change is happening but there seems to be no flexibility and no departmental collaboration.

Andrea Sella (UCL Professor of Inorganic Chemistry): The effectiveness of ed-tech use often depends on the academic running the course, so students experience patchiness throughout their studies. It’s a reflection of deeper issues about teaching quality.

Q: How do we spread good practice?

Sella: We need to evaluate our teaching more. Promotions and reward for teaching often don’t match up with research; a cultural shift is needed.

John Baker (Chief Executive, D2L): If universities start to recognise good teaching quantitatively, then there will be an improvement.

Q: Are we moving away from ‘making’ technology work for us (e.g. using open source) to using ‘off-the-shelf’ versions?

Paul Balogh (Chief Executive, Lean Forward): Open source hasn’t been embraced by the community as much as expected.

Baker: You should be able to build on off-the-shelf models of ed-tech by modifying and updating regularly. More agile software is available.

Dave White (Head of Technology Enhanced Learning, University of the Arts): The issue is that ed-tech has rapidly gone from innovation to service. As institutions scale up ed-tech and become more dependent on it, it becomes more difficult and risky to refine and experiment.

Diana Laurillard (Chair of Learning with Digital Technology, UCL Institute of Education): There has to be collaborative learning but it will be a challenge to do this.

Heidari: Perhaps there should be a national network of interested parties, including educators, to share information, best practice and help with using open source solutions.

Daniel Copleston (UCL Bartlett School of Planning Masters students): Not all learners and courses are the same. We need to think about how we make sure that any system supports teachers and learners.

Q: How fit for purpose is ed-tech for today’s teachers? What real world solutions could we give to time pressured teachers?

Balogh: Published content is often locked so teachers can not easily modify or adapt their content – we are working on a solution to this.

Baker: Steps to improve accessibility issues (e.g. for visually impaired and deaf/hard of hearing users) have been taken, which is good progress, but the next challenge is building bespoke ed-tech that gives all students accessibility.

Naik: Ed-tech moves at a pace so it may never be fit for purpose. Teachers can try to make sure they are in sync with it, but they must also consider future developments.

Heidari:: Students should be the focus and accessibility should be a priority. The reality is that systems are often not fully accessible to those with disabilities.

Copleston: Make it worth teachers’ while to use ed-tech and make outcomes matter through performance-related measures (e.g. student surveys).

Laurillard: Scale is a problem in higher education and ed-tech could be the solution. MOOCs, for example, could be good for collaborative learning between teachers as well as learners.

White: The internet enables and encourages open publishing (e.g. blogs, Wikipedia and Twitter), and higher education needs to follow other sectors by capitalising on users ability to do so.

Sella: Conversations with students can sometimes give you solutions, but ed-tech is often not fit for purpose because it doesn’t match teachers’ and learners’ expectations for their technology (e.g. social media).

Q: Good technology does exist, so should all lecturers be trained how to use it? Would this solve resistance to ed-tech?

Sella: This is difficult because as well as balancing research, teaching, admin and outreach, academics have their own unique teaching styles. The overhead involved with ed-tech involves a lot of complexity so some academics can’t see the benefit, especially with smaller groups. Give it time and let them slowly see the benefits.

White: We need to describe the ‘why’ more than the ‘how’ so that lecturers know what’s in it for them/for their teaching.

Baker: Industry and institutions need to work together to find out what ideal ed-tech looks like so that the barrier for adoption is lowered.

More impact for ed-tech

After a quick audience vote proposing the initial question, the collective answer to ‘Is today’s ed-tech fit for purpose?’ was a resounding “hmmm”, or put otherwise, “I’m not sure”.

The closing statements saw the panellists share their ‘one thing you would like to see happen for ed-tech to have more impact’.

Overall, no one seems quite sure of whether our ed-tech is fit for purpose. But the closing recommendations from the panellists, for one thing what technology in education could do to achieve more impact, did give very clear pointers. Dialogue, ownership of issues, showcasing of innovation, and full participation by teachers and students, gave the sense that the field is ready to pick up pace.

Perhaps the most resonant recommendation came from Dave White: that a university’s digital estate should be valued financially as much as its buildings. There was plenty to talk about as the 100-odd audience and panellists mingled afterwards for drinks and further networking.

Watch ‘Is today’s educational technology (ed-tech) fit for purpose?’ event in full:

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