The state of education technology in higher education

In the six years since I became the chief executive of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) I’ve seen how technology is used across all sectors of education and in all parts of the UK.

Representing thousands of professionals from senior managers to academics and technologists – from hundreds of institutions, education providers, technology companies, and sector organisations – gives me a unique perspective. This year the trustees of the association have invited me to share that perspective and my vision for what the future of learning technology holds for us at our 25th annual conference.

There are complex challenges ahead if we are really going to exploit the potential of technology to meet the demands of education and employment. I am not talking about technological solutions, but about our cultural relationship to technology – a relationship that we continue to negotiate and articulate. Education should be at the forefront of that effort.

Beyond technology?

Although I am proud to call myself a learning technologist working in a leadership role, my academic career had its beginnings in anthropology – and true to that training my perspective on the current and future state of learning technology isn’t focused on the technology, the rise of the machines, or the power of artificial intelligence. Technological innovation is certainly at the heart of the matter, but it should not determine the direction of our thinking by itself.

One of the biggest challenges we face is to create equitable access to learning technology, starting with the nearest learners, colleagues or family members – all the way to the global scale. We still hear the tired tropes of young people being “digital natives” or “everyone has a phone in their pocket” far too often to feel confident that provision is consistent in even the most basic ways. A lack of joined-up thinking between sectors makes this problem worse – and we lack a long-term strategy of providing access not only to connectivity and hardware but to tools and data documenting learning and recognition. Commercial competition between different platforms and formats as well as a lack of funding for key interoperability standards and implementation are vital concerns for us as a country if we are to overcome these issues.

Another area that is going to be decisive in shaping our future work is how we take ownership of the way in which new technologies are developed and adopted. Working in partnership with industry is important, and increasingly we are seeing more agile partnerships between start-up (or even student-led) business ventures, which is a hopeful sign. However, if we rely disproportionately on external expertise and don’t build internal capacity, then we become reliant on others to understand our needs, to interpret how we work, and what we want to achieve.

What’s the use of (advocating) experts?

We can’t interrogate or evaluate what we don’t understand effectively, and as technology becomes more complex, the risk of relying on advocating experts for evaluation or advice is increasing. ALT has seen a big diversification in the roles of learning technologists over the past two decades, with more stepping into decision-making roles, and there is a good reason for this: we need that kind of expertise in order to take effective decisions and ensure that staff are supported and developed appropriately. Knowing what precisely a “red flag” on a data dashboard signifies, and how that judgement is arrived at, might well be decisive in a learner’s life or a professional’s career – our own included.

Yet even against the backdrop of seductive marketing and Silicon Valley (or Silicon Roundabout) success stories, there is still strong resistance to technology in every aspect of academic life and in every learning context. On the one hand, we have a potent cocktail of lack of competence, hesitancy, and also fear, while on the other we have the strongly-held belief that, really, learning isn’t better with technology. Wouldn’t it be much better to stick to the old ways, and in any case, where is the evidence that proves once and for all that student outcomes are improved?

Hype, but no policy

I am sure that you have heard all of this many times before, and depending on where you are on the technology spectrum; you have either nodded with approval or sighed with frustration or a bit of both. Every minister who enters the Department for Education and whose despatch box contains some papers with the words “EdTech” scrawled across them has probably asked the same questions. They certainly seem to task their departments with similar objectives each time – to find evidence, to determine the best course, to determine where efficiencies can be made, and to improve results according to whatever measures are currently in favour.

At least for the past few rounds of these efforts, I have seen the same cycle repeated over and over, the same questions being examined, the same barriers to change, and funding or quality assurance agencies scrutinised. At least from the outside, little meaningful progress in policy development can be observed. There’s no national strategy and no change from the market-led, short-term initiatives that often have little impact beyond their initial launch phase, and that are laid to rest in the graveyard of self-sustaining educational technology platforms.

This is where in my view the seductive narrative of the EdTech industry is at least partially at fault – we focus on what’s just beyond the horizon, about the future potential of technology to solve all our problems with less effort or lower costs. It prompts us to look only to the future to solve problems, instead of doing so now. It moves the milestones of what technology in education should look like ever forwards, so that, as we strive to keep pace with progress, we don’t have time to look back or concentrate on the present.

Looking to the (actual) future

Particularly in the UK we nevertheless do have a long history, and organisations such as ALT have built up decades of independent peer-reviewed research, evidence of what works and what doesn’t, and commensurate standards in professional accreditation. We have a proud tradition of long-distance learning, world-leading pioneers who we often ignore in favour of US-centric examples, and a strong movement of sharing and collaborating openly. In short, we do have all the ingredients to succeed, we are just not making use of them as much as we should.

My ALT conference keynote, setting out my vision for the future of learning technology, is about not leaving it to others to decide what that future looks like. Instead, I share insights from my work to ensure that we use our expertise, our evidence to empower institutions and the people whom they serve, to make informed, equitable choices about how to use technology for learning and teaching. In Opening Up Education, Diana Laurillard famously said that “using technology to improve education is not rocket science … it is much, much harder than that”. Her maxim still holds true, but fortunately, we now have a national body of research and practice to help us shape what’s on the horizon in what Martin Weller calls a new critical age of EdTech.

The conference runs 11-13 September and you can participate in many of the sessions mentioned above online or via the #altc hashtag.

2 responses to “The state of education technology in higher education

  1. Such a good piece, and accurately reflects my 30 years of dabbling. I had expected that by now that the curriculum across all levels of education would be digitally enhanced , supercharged even alas this is just not the case.

    So what to do……

  2. It would be helpful to have some concrete examples of technology enhanced education that are working in this gap you identify between political short-termism and EdTech horizon-gazing? Are you able to point to a few?

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