Image by Chris Bull for ALT.
You would think that the annual Association for Learning Technology conference – held this year at the University of Liverpool – would be primarily focused on technology. But you might be surprised to find that discussions and presentations are centred far more on policy and people. In setting the themes for the conference, co-chair Helen O’Sullivan (University of Liverpool), and ALT CEO Maren Deepwell chose not to highlight particular hardware or software, but to look at the common issues that underpin the way technology is used.
“The current key issues in edtech are around enabling usage at scale,” explained Deepwell, “but this relies on the skills and understanding of institutional staff at all levels.” Leadership is a particular pinch point, with a move to informed and empowered decisions reliant on the way senior staff relate to a confusing and hype-ridden commercial edtech marketplace. The responsible use of technology – from data privacy to questions of ownership and agency – also relies on the quality of policymaking.
Delegates tend to span practitioner, policy and research roles, with a multi-disciplinary approach to the use of technology supporting the generation of new insights. Helen O’Sullivan is one of a new generation of senior managers that have spent the majority of their careers using and supporting education technology. “In the past, institutional managers knew they needed to do something about technology, but weren’t sure what to do”, O’Sullivan told me. “Over the last couple of years you’ve seen institutions creating and filling roles near the top of the organisation to provide expertise in edtech. PVCs are now likely to be implementation specialists.”
Collaborating to compete?
The tension between a desire to support the learning of all students, and the new reality of competitive quality enhancement is felt keenly in the field. “Getting people to share approaches and ideas can be difficult,” suggested Deepwell, “even though individuals in the field see themselves as collaborative. The ‘not invented here’ issue persists at a disciplinary and institutional level, but what ALT facilitates is the winning of the sharing argument.”
The pressure from initiatives like TEF are driving a turn towards the seduction that an edict from on high (and some commercial edtech secret sauce) will change practice and solve large problems. But practice at a disciplinary, and even individual, level can be hugely varied – Liverpool recently rolled out an institutional lecture capture policy but with huge differences across departments a prescriptive single policy would be problematic. O’Sullivan reflected that the real challenge was not one of technology, but of “picking up innovation and turning into policy, whilst retaining agency.”
Online Learning at Liverpool
Uniquely for a Russell Group institution the University of Liverpool already has over 10,000 online students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and this year sees the start of a re-examination of processes and models which have been in place for (in edtech terms) centuries. “The next phase is further growth in programmes and students”, O’Sullivan told me, “and we’re thinking through implications of Brexit and continued restraint in international student visas, and looking at online education as a way to support transnational education. We’re moving from a generic online offer to looking at specific geographical areas. China is a huge market for us, although the Chinese government doesn’t recognise online learning, there is a demand amongst expatriate professionals around Shanghai, where Liverpool also has a physical presence.”
Counterintuitively, the UK represents another opportunity for online delivery. Professional CPD, business and management, and computing (via a newly revamped portfolio) are already strong areas online, and a BPS accredited Psychology course is another new development. “Our computing courses are aimed at those with some computing background who want to become the expert in big data, or cyber-security.”
Like many institutions, Liverpool is also reviewing the role of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) A longstanding partnership with Futurelearn has helped to ignite staff interest in online learning and offering useful insights about processes, good practice and technology, and MOOCs have been trialed as pathways into undergraduate and postgraduate provision, and as vehicles for research impact.
Working with Laureate
But discussing online learning at Liverpool with attendees at ALTC prompts one response above all others – the partnership with Laureate. Back in 1999 the announcement of the deal, wherein Laureate effectively owns and promotes the Liverpool brand online, saw Liverpool as one of the first institutions to enter in to such an arrangement. O’Sullivan describes their relationship as “Fantastic! – a genuine partnership, built on a level of trust developed over a unique longer term relationship.” She added: “Our relationship with Laureate has enabled Liverpool to develop a large number of global online programmes with minimal financial risks.”
There has been a deliberate decision to develop a collaborative method of learning that goes beyond traditional model of distance learning. Online courses at Liverpool have a focus on community building, using small virtual classrooms with students assigned randomly. Surprisingly, half of all online students choose to attend graduation in Liverpool itself.
The model means that online classes are facilitated by staff employed by Laureate – though all are also associate members of staff at Liverpool. These facilitators deliver content developed by Liverpool staff, but require a doctoral qualification in the subject in question. Staff also undergo training leading to Higher Education Academy fellowship – this is partly to maintain parity with training offered to all Liverpool staff and perhaps demonstrates the influence of Janet Beer (recent Liverpool VC who has put a renewed emphasis on teaching and learning), but has led to a low staff turnover rate.
Laureate adds marketing and scalability to the mix – they work with 70 institutions globally, including the University of Roehampton in the UK. They have been a part of a wave of online learning delivery companies including Keypath, Pearson and OES that have partnered with universities, though some at ALTC would feel that an in-house approach can make for a more distinctive offer.
The recent Bronze TEF award has, as you might expect, fueled a reflection on institutional approaches to teaching and assessment: Liverpool has historically struggled with NSS scores, and “the trajectory was upwards but not by enough.” O’Sullivan also noted that Liverpool shared a benchmark with Oxford on highly skilled employment, which may not have correctly accounted for an improving, but still sluggish, local employment market.
Interestingly, Liverpool’s response has been to look at sharing and reusing practice from small areas of excellence – very similar to the way in which ALT looks to promote the sharing of education technology practice between institutions. O’Sullivan summarises: “I’m really passionate about this, how to operationalise policy work at a local level. Institutional managers have taken too much agency away from departmental leaders, and I want to address that.”