The ninth UCISA Survey of Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) for higher education Report has been published. The Report offers a longitudinal perspective of TEL developments across the UK higher education sector, focusing on the current provision within universities and other higher education providers and the emerging and planned patterns of learning technology usage. This year’s Report draws on data going back to 2001 in its longitudinal analysis of TEL trends. In this blog post, we will explore some of the key findings from this year’s Survey, updating the picture that was reported on in 2016 (see corresponding blog post).
The agenda for the 2018 UCISA TEL Survey addressed developments in areas of learning technology service provision related to the student learning experience. This included questions on the adoption of student-centred TEL services such as lecture capture, as well on the support that institutions are putting in place to encourage the use of students’ devices on campus in teaching, learning and assessment activities. Other areas of interest touched on emerging developments such as the establishment of learning analytics services and the growth of fully online delivery across the sector. The Survey is typically completed by institutional heads of e-learning and for this year’s Survey 108 out of a possible 160 HE institutions responded – a response rate of 68%.
The Survey findings reveal a strong level of institutional investment in TEL systems and services, no doubt driven by a need to improve student satisfaction ratings through feedback channels such as the UK National Student Survey (NSS), which in turn informs Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) ratings for institutions. In this year’s results ‘Improving student satisfaction’ (e.g. NSS scores) represented the second most common driver after ‘Enhancing the quality of learning and teaching’ for institutional TEL provision, followed by ‘Meeting student expectations’ in third place. Arguably, this keen appreciation of student needs has led to a common set of core services being established by higher education providers across the sector, based around the use of an institutional VLE platform. Core centrally supported services include text-matching, asynchronous communication, e-portfolio and formative assessment tools. The key development since the last Survey in 2016 has been the increasing investment in document sharing and lecture capture tools, which now form part of the baseline institutional tool-set. Another key change has been in the way that these services are being managed, with external hosting now accounting for over half of respondents’ VLE services in this year’s Survey, and cloud services dominating for lecture capture provision.
In terms of the deployment of technology, there is a more nuanced picture of tool usage across the sector. This year’s data shows that of this shared tool-set, only the VLE, reading list software, text matching software and tools to support the electronic management of assignments (EMA) were deployed in 50% or more of the courses that an institution delivers. This suggests that TEL investment is having the most impact in course management and administrative processes, rather than in supporting different ways of learning and teaching. Newman and Beetham’s study of the student digital experience (Student digital experience tracker 2017) reports a similar finding, with students experiencing technology usage ‘more for convenience than pedagogical purposes’.
The data on course delivery modes indeed corroborates this conclusion, with 73% of responding institutions to this year’s Survey using TEL tools in a supplementary way to support content delivery processes, as opposed to active learning modes based on collaborative or assessed study tasks which actually require learner engagement and participation. Blended learning delivery focusing on the provision of lecture notes and supplementary resources to students still represents the most commonly supported activity, with active learning and open course delivery modes showing little change from the levels recorded in 2016.(For a summary of results from the 2016 Survey on technology enabled course delivery, please view the following YouTube presentation.)
Consistent with this picture is the limited progress that HE providers have made in the delivery of fully online courses, with only 5% of respondents confirming that this mode of delivery is offered extensively across their institution. In the case study research which accompanied the 2016 Survey work (blog post summary here), seven of the nine institutions that were interviewed identified fully online learning as a priority growth area for the next few years. However, the scaling up of distance learning delivery has not yet been realised as institutions get to grips with the enormity of this challenge. It is quite revealing that in this year’s data, establishing ‘new modes of delivery’ represents one of the top 3 challenges facing institutions over the next two to three years, along with the development of services in learning analytics, lecture capture and EMA. Preparations do appear to be underway though with institutions creating dedicated distance learning units and establishing collaboration arrangements with external / commercial partners that are dedicated to the development of fully online / distance learning, and to a much lesser degree open learning and degree apprenticeships. These initiatives have all gained momentum over the past two years, but are yet to bear fruit in terms of extensive fully online course delivery. This is definitely one area to monitor closely to see how provision develops over the next few years.
The 2018 data also suggests that there has been a reduced level of evaluation activity over the past two years – specifically in terms of the impact of TEL on the student learning experience. Where it is taking place, it appears to be focused on measuring student satisfaction as part of a general review of TEL services – in sympathy with NSS dimensions such as the quality of institutional learning resources and the learning environment. (See Guardian, Sept 2017: How can universities ensure their students area satisfied?).
The evaluation of staff pedagogic practices is at its lowest level since 2012 and has most commonly focused on a general review of TEL services, determining the take-up and usage of TEL tools across an institution. In contrast, reviews of TEL systems are flourishing, with just under half of respondents to this year’s Survey having conducted some form of TEL review over the last two years, and two-thirds planning to do so over the next two years. VLE and lecture capture systems represent the most common form of systems that are being reviewed by institutions. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the central importance of these systems to the student learning experience as sources of content and study support.
Worryingly, lack of academic staff knowledge re-emerges as one of the top three barriers to TEL development in this year’s Survey, in combination with lack of time and a supportive departmental/school culture. This chimes with Newman and Beetham’s digital tracker study, which reported that students feel that only 50% of courses address digital skills adequately, raising questions about the digital capabilities of lecturers – a concern aired in previous reports on student perceptions of teaching with technology (see 2010 Student Perspectives on Technology -demand, perceptions and training needs). We may speculate whether the re-emergence of this digital capability challenge is related in any way to the increased range of TEL systems and services that academic staff are being asked to engage with (e.g. video, interactive lecturing tools), going beyond basic use of the VLE.
On a more positive note though, the availability of TEL support staff at an institutional and local level tops the list of encouraging factors identified by respondents to help promote TEL development. Encouragingly, the evidence in this year’s Survey shows that there has been an increase in TEL support staff across the sector to help support TEL activities within institutions, and this no doubt will help lecturers to overcome the challenges they face in making effective use of TEL tools in course design and delivery activities.