On the role of policy to encourage effective use of learning technology

The Elections 2010 at Northumbria Students' Union
Elections 2010 Northumbria Student Union by Matt Dinnery on Flickr

Recently I finally got around to reading ‘ALT survey on the effective use of learning technology in education.’ This report is based on a 2014 survey of UK-based educators from all sectors: Higher Education, Further Education, schools, adult education, and commercial. They were asked about their agreement with statements describing barriers to effective use of learning technology. The top four statements across all sectors were:

  • Lack of resource to provide release and support for staff to enable them to incorporate technology in their practices.
  • Reliance on individuals to champion innovation and exploitation of their willingness to support colleagues.
  • Lack of direction at a strategic level resulting in fragmentation of practice across provider curriculum areas and levels of work.
  • Lack of credit and recognition for innovative uses of technology by key influencers such as government agencies, awarding bodies, governing bodies.

More reasons were given, but they tended to echo the above statements, falling into the following categories: lack of staff time and support, lack of support at senior level, lack of leadership in effective use of technology, lack of incentives, and lack of funding for technology.

When I think about what government agencies and governing bodies emphasise in terms of policy, I think of the recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise, and the National Student Survey (NSS). Both of these have an impact on universities’ league table standings, and consequently on the targets and practices adopted within universities. It is sometimes argued that the REF ends up actively discouraging teaching innovation — who has time to try and innovate in teaching, when what you really have to do to produce more high-impact research papers? The NSS, on the other hand, can encourage teaching innovation and effective use of learning technology, in that these often result in positive feedback from students. My university recently implemented lecture capture after students lobbied for it through a student union petition.

Most of the learning technology innovation projects I’ve worked on have been ‘ground up’ endeavours, implemented by particular champions for their particular reasons, which sometimes took the form of funded projects. These were all perfectly effective as far as they went. But ‘top down’ innovation in the form of policy directive is necessary too.

I see a good example of top-down, policy-driven learning innovation at the University of Leeds, which has recently launched a Digital Learning Team and adopted both a Blended Learning Strategy and an Open Educational Resources (OER) Policy. Staff and students alike are actively encouraged to use, create, and publish OER as academic practice for good-quality blended learning, all as part of a progressive stance for teaching quality.

Looking forward, I see a possible driver toward effective learning technology use in the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) for teaching and supporting learning. Within the list of ‘core knowledge’ factors in which competency must be demonstrated for accredition, are:

  • Appropriate methods for teaching, learning and assessing in the subject area and at the level of the academic programme
  • How students learn, both generally and within their subject/disciplinary area(s)
  • The use and value of appropriate learning technologies
  • Methods for evaluating the effectiveness of teaching

As universities begin to move toward use of the UKPSF for staff continuing professional development, the above criteria should encourage more effective use of learning technology in UK higher education institutions.

Terese Bird, University of Leicester

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