Can technology change teaching?

Nicola Yeeles explores the effects of technology use across universities and asks whether they are driving true change

Some universities, most notably Northampton, have embraced blended learning where home study time, often using technology for ‘input’, is combined with in-university contact time. These ‘flipped’ approaches have seen growing interest across the sector in recent years. Students engage with a range of activities and tasks in their self-study time, including reading, reviewing videos and podcasts, and then formulate their own arguments on a given topic. They then use what would have been the traditional ‘lecture’ time for discussion, groupwork and review of their emerging ideas with the lecturer.

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Northampton, Nick Petford, has been quoted as saying that sitting in a lecture theatre being “spouted at” does not offer value for money for students paying £9,250 a year in tuition fees. As a result the University’s new Waterside Campus has done away with lecture theatres in favour of more interactive-style spaces. It’s likely that other universities will follow suit given time to experiment with smaller pilot studies.

Changes on the horizon?

Although individuals may be using technology to drive improvements in their teaching, Jisc’s head of higher education and student experience, Sarah Davies, doesn’t think that technology has changed the fundamental pedagogy that much. So although virtual reality, augmented reality and simulations offer students the opportunity to interact with various situations and to learn through these experiences, Davies said: “While these have great potential, they have yet to reach widespread adoption, possibly because many of the simulated and virtual environments are necessarily subject-specific and so tailored ones are needed for different topics and subjects. In our tracker survey, 58% of higher education students said they’d never used an educational simulation or game to support their learning.”

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Northampton, has said that sitting in a lecture theatre being “spouted at” does not offer value for money for students paying £9,250 a year in tuition fees.

At many universities, lecture capture enables students to catch up on missed lectures and revise their content. Davies said: “We know from our 2017 student digital experience tracker results that students value the convenience and flexibility which technology use brings – such as having access to lecture notes and online resources anytime, anywhere, and being able to review recorded lectures in the run-up to exam time.” A study at Queen’s University Belfast recently revealed that students are more likely to see recorded lectures as something that reinforces, rather than replaces, class teaching.

Davies pointed to lots of other positives for students in today’s tech-savvy universities. “The availability of digitised collections of primary resources or historical archives means that students can carry out research on resources they would never previously have had access to, and thereby build a deeper understanding of the process of knowledge creation. Some lecturers set assessments which enable learners to practise and showcase their digital skills, and begin to share and discuss their work with audiences beyond the University. And many lecture theatres are being refitted to support more active learning in lectures, with seats arranged to better allow discussion, to allow students to project their own devices onto the main display, and to answer poll-type questions in class to help reflect on their understanding. Together with staff development and/or discussion about how teaching approaches can be flexed to make the most of the potential for active learning, this can be a way of prompting pedagogical change.”

Reflecting on the pace of change, Davies added: “I think sometimes individual technologies can be taken up very rapidly, particularly on the back of student voice – this is what has happened with lecture capture – but the changes in practice around that can take a long time to work through.” She looks to lecture capture as an example. While now quite ubiquitous across the universities sector, Davies noted that: “Many places are still working through what it’s really most useful to ‘capture’, from short podcasts or slidecasts to full audio and video of an hour-long lecture.”

Grassroots innovation

Some universities have driven change by making strategic decisions, but often it’s about grassroots innovation driven by individual lecturers or departments. Davies suggests that the place to start is in building the skills and confidence of your staff with digital technology. Last year’s Jisc survey of 1,001 learners at Scottish universities found that 63% of Scottish students think staff need to improve their digital skills to keep up. But, Davies said: “It’s inevitably an ongoing process of exploration, trying out and reflection, and as such takes time.” With a programme of support building a framework from the ground up, though, advances in teaching look set to continue, for the benefit of tomorrow’s students.

Nowhere did people think that technology might widen access and help with student recruitment more than in the field of massively open online courses or MOOCs. These are run by individual universities, and anyone can join regardless of where they are based, often for free up to the point of certification or assessment. In the end, it’s been shown that the student body largely consists of graduates in their 30s and 40s but nevertheless, having to think about the needs of larger, more diverse groups of students is having a positive effect on how people teach.

There are a number of providers that universities can link up with, one of them being FutureLearn. Nigel Smith, Head of Content at FutureLearn, recalled: “In 2016, I was in Seoul meeting with academics at Hanyang University who’d taught FutureLearn courses. One of those academics, Songman Kang, teaches ‘Economics of Crime’, a course that explores policies on crime and the motivations for committing crimes within an economic context. He teaches a similar course on campus but had struggled to get his students to discuss the topics in class. By contrast, in the FutureLearn course, he was finding rich responses to questions about crime rates in the United States and the unintended consequences of incarceration.

Some universities have driven change by making strategic decisions, but often it’s about grassroots innovation driven by individual lecturers or departments

“The difference was that Songman had to work much harder to write questions that would elicit responses from his global cohort of online learners. What was brilliant to hear is that he’s now using these same types of questions in the classroom and getting a much better discussion as a result.” Smith said he has heard similar stories from educators all the time. “Thinking about how to engage thousands of learners from such diverse backgrounds is a completely new challenge to most educators and it can be exhilarating. Connecting with thousands of learners can make you even better at connecting with just one.”

Collaboration: it’s gone global

Of course, where universities are engaging cohorts of global students with their online teaching, their own home students can also benefit from the course itself. It can offer the students a much more varied peer group to interact with and learn from. Smith said: “A medical student who’s taking a FutureLearn course won’t just be talking to fellow aspiring doctors but also professionals who are taking the course to help their professional development and patients who may be suffering from the topic being studied. A common motivation of our university partners for teaching FutureLearn courses is to present their organisation to the world, but increasingly we’re seeing a desire to use this technology to bring the world to their organisations too.”

Mark House, senior product manager at RM Education, which provides software, services and technology to UK schools and colleges, predicts that in the future, global collaboration will become more common. He said: “The use of technology to share lessons and ideas in real time around the world will become more common. Online platforms that help to foster collaboration in the classroom – such as Google Classroom, One Drive and Microsoft Teams – will become more central to learning. Video communications tools will be more prevalent in the classroom, while it will never replace face-to-face conversation, tools like Google Expedition will transport students into places and situations they wouldn’t otherwise experience.”

There is certainly no consensus in the education community about technology. While some countries have put technological integration at the core of education policy, others are less convinced about its merits. As it becomes easier for universities to implement technology, House said: “The argument has moved from ‘can we?’ to ‘should we?’ This is the next battleground for technology in education.”

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