Charting the development of technology enhanced learning across the sector: reflections on recent UCISA & NUS research

technology research road signsPOSTED ON BEHALF OF DR RICHARD WALKER

What’s new in technology research? This blog post discusses a recently published article by UCISA researchers on technology developments across the UK HE sector, whilst also reflecting on the NUS research roadshow, which pitched up at Manchester Metropolitan University this week to disseminate findings on its latest study of student perceptions of technology enhanced learning.

What have been the key developments in technology enhanced learning across the UK HE sector over the last ten years? Where should the priorities lie for HE institutions in the support and development of learning technology services in the future? What do students really want in terms of technology provision and support? …….These are just some of the questions that recent UCISA and NUS research studies have attempted to address – provoking no doubt more questions than answers.

Charting the development of technology enhanced learning developments across the UK HE sector (Walker, Voce & Jenkins, 2013) – a recently published article in the online journal Interactive Learning Environments offers a retrospective view of TEL developments, drawing on UCISA survey and case study research to highlight the key technology trends over the past decade. The evidence reveals the considerable investment in centrally-managed learning platforms and tools to manage and control the learning experience, from the ‘mainstreaming’ of VLE platforms to the widespread adoption of e-submission and text matching services. The article questions though the progress that has been made in pedagogic developments – the degree to which new models of teaching and learning have been developed to take advantage of technological affordances. Reviewing the relationship of technology usage to course delivery, web supplemented modules still appear to predominate –  and it does not require a huge leap in logic to classify this delivery mode as part of the baseline standardisation of teaching resources to students – content delivery par excellence.

The paper acknowledges the rise of student-controlled and creative technologies to promote information and knowledge-sharing and networking activities, but notes how these technologies still remain on the periphery of formal course delivery, with only baby steps taken by the sector as a whole in acknowledging and supporting the role of student-owned devices in the conduct of learning activities, both in formal and informal learning contexts. The paper closes by speculating that the MOOC phenomenon (or fad?) may serve as a catalyst for change in this respect, harnessing new pedagogies of online learning which may be applied to mainstream teaching and learning practices.

A moot point indeed! Whilst acknowledging the recent MOOC frenzy, which has captured the imagination of senior university managers up and down the country and prompted ambitious claims for new forms of learning (note Simon Nelson’s take on FutureLearn and its potential to serve as a new social networking site for students), it is highly questionable whether we are any closer to seeing a new wave of investment in TEL services for mainstream teaching and learning activities and encouragement for new forms of course delivery and learning. Can we really detect momentum for pedagogic transformation, beyond process improvements to the way that learning and teaching is managed or more sophisticated ways of delivering content to students (lecture capture and videos)?

These are difficult questions to answer, but whichever way we approach these issues, it seems fair to state that the availability of technology alone will not be the catalyst for change (aka pedagogic transformation). Whilst the recent Gartner report for higher education (2013) heralds the rise of interactive technologies such as ‘gamification’ and adaptive learning, placing them at the peak of its hype cycle for the HE sector, the reality across UK campuses is very different. Many institutions are still grappling with basic support and infrastructure requirements (e.g. wifi resilience) for mobile learning and the renewal of their own learning platforms, with support for social learning interaction through the use of student devices still some way off. (For a perspective on the University of York’s progress in establishing e-learning services, please see this presentation.)

Indeed the recent NUS research on technology enhanced learning offers a cautionary note to the discussion, stating that institutions should focus less on chasing the latest technology fads and the creation of new technology services, and focus more on how existing technologies are applied to support learning.

The NUS SPOT report (2010) observed that students prefer teaching without technology to blended delivery which is poorly managed by lecturers. Updating the picture, Elizabeth Bone (Head of Research at the NUS) addressed lecturers and e-learning managers in an open forum at Manchester Metropolitan University on 16th December, summarising findings from a recent survey and focus group studies sponsored by Desire2Learn. 71% of HE and FE survey respondents agreed that the use of technology is vital in successful learning and 69% supported a similar view for successful teaching, but crucially students are more interested in existing technologies used effectively than seeing radical changes in the range of technologies employed in course delivery. Shiny new tools are not necessarily value-adding, and the much maligned VLE is still seen by students as an essential administrative and learning tool, if it is adopted consistently by lecturers across programmes of study and departments. Consistency and better organisation and structure in the use of tools are valued more highly than innovation. To this end, there is still a strong message from students that lecturers need to develop further their digital competencies to make the most of what’s already on offer for them to use in their teaching. 42% of survey respondents felt that students knew more about technology than their lecturers, and a sizable minority of lecturers require additional support to allow them to make effective use of technology in teaching. Furthermore, students want a direct input in course planning: 51% agreed that it is important for them to have some input on the planning of technology in courses.

The NUS research paints quite a conservative picture of what students want and how they see future service provision unfolding. The results indicate that students expect to see more changes in the use of technology, addressing administration, resource provision and support for independent learning, but interestingly not in its use in teaching in the future. Maybe students have a crystal ball and can accurately track the pace of pedagogic change, but the supplementary use of technology (content delivery) is still very much a part of the future learning experience in their view, and not a replacement for the lecture and traditional face-to-face teaching. So much for flipping the classroom and more ambitious uses of lecture recordings and video to transform the use of contact time between lecturers and students.

So what of the future? What lessons should we draw from the UCISA findings and NUS research? First, that institutional IT provision still needs to improve, and the way that technology is employed across courses should be standardised more effectively. Social media and new technologies are less important than providing support for what’s already available, although students recognise that the use of their own portable and interactive devices in teaching and learning activities (especially group-work) is becoming increasingly important. Institutions need to be prepared for the increase of student-owned mobile devices. As Elizabeth Bone noted, just under 90% of students now have smart phones (with iPhones and iPads leading the way) and they increasingly view them as learning tools. Second, that greater emphasis is needed on upskilling staff to use learning technologies effectively. From a student perspective, raising the level of lecturers’ digital competence is more highly prized than fostering a commitment to innovation, with the focus more on making the most of the existing tool-set.

Achieving digital competence (which competencies?) may be a staging post and necessary first step towards pedagogic transformation in the way that technologies are employed to support learning. For this to happen though, as Laurillard (2008) observes, institutions will need to give their teaching staff the time and trust to develop their practice in the use of digital technologies. This remains an enduring challenge for HE institutions to address.


Gartner (2013). Hype Cycle for Education, 2013.

McNicol, S. & Bone, E. (forthcoming). Improving learning experiences: Student attitudes towards the

use of technology. Research study sponsored by Desire2Learn.

Laurillard, D. (2008). Digital technologies and their role in achieving our ambitions for education: an

inaugural professorial lecture. London; Institute of Education, University of London, ISBN: 0 85473

702 2, 38pp.

National Union of Students [NUS] (2010). Student perspectives on technology – demand, perceptions

and training needs. Report to HEFCE by NUS. Retrieved from HEFCE website:

Times Higher Education (2013) Futurelearn’s boss on breaking into Moocs, 21st March 2013.

UCISA Surveys and Case Studies of Technology Enhanced Learning: 1999 – 2012.

Walker, R. (2013). Reflections on developments with learning technologies: York’s journey and some discussion on sector trends (2003-2013). Keynote presentation. Heads of e-Learning Forum 10th anniversary meeting. City University London, Wednesday 6th November 2013. (presentation – PPTX 4.8MB)

Walker, R., Voce, J. & Jenkins, M. (2013). Charting the development of technology-enhanced learning developments across the UK higher education sector: a longitudinal  perspective (2001-2012), Interactive Learning Environments, Routledge: London. First published on: 11 December 2013.

One response to “Charting the development of technology enhanced learning across the sector: reflections on recent UCISA & NUS research

  1. Pingback: ‘Rhetoric and Reality’ – critical perspectives on educational technology from Down Under | ALT Online Newsletter·

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