Questioning distance learning technologies

Beatriz Acevedo

Category: Centre for Innovation in Higher Education

4 November 2019

A blog by Beatriz Acevedo about the Supporting Student Success seminar at the Centre for Distance Education, University of London, 9/10/2019.

When talking about distance learning it is difficult to avoid envisioning sophisticated technical platforms, the use of Artificial Intelligence and virtual learning environments. Indeed, as a complete ignorant in this field I had great expectations about attending a seminar on “Supporting Students Success” with the formidable Dr Linda Amrane-Cooper (former ARU academic) at the Centre for Distance Education (CDE), University of London.

It was an opportunity to catch up with the latest methods and advances in the field, try to identify a taxonomy of Distance Learning experiences, and see what I can import into my own teaching.

In this sense the seminar was generous in sharing different methods and approaches supported by the CDE; ranging from using chat-bots to guide students in the master of public sector management, through to decision-making trees and maps, or the growing interest in simulation games in business and management, illustrated by the Icarus Game.

However, beyond the presentations that were focused on the novelty of using gadgets and technology, the seminar was richer in the type of discussions and questions from the audience concerning three main areas.

The first question related to the pedagogical foundations that support each of the digital techniques. This was an issue we discussed during DigiFest 2019 at ARU and at other forums on education like Shape Education (Cambridge Assessment Centre, September 2019). Even technology companies like Apple, are adamant in reminding us that mobile technologies (iPad, smartphone) are just tools, and that our mission as educators is to be focused on the ‘what’ we want to achieve, rather than the ‘how’.

For example, the Icarus Game allows participants to play roles in running an airport; they develop certain skills and competencies, and integrate theory into practice. This is all fine, but is it not another form of problem-based learning? And if this is the case, can other types of technologies (analogue, digital, theatre) be as useful as an online environment?

Which takes us to the second question: “Are we doing the same but with better technologies?” Are we still attached to an idea of education that is focused on content rather than co-design and co-creation? In my current role as Academic Lead for Employability at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, I support course teams in the integration of employability into the curriculum.

One of the presenters, Dr David Baume an experienced researcher in in Higher Education and CDE Visiting Fellow, opened the discussion about the different literacies or capabilities that our students need to develop to reach their potential and encouraged us to shift our focus from the “discipline” or course towards the “student/graduate”. When revising the curriculum and redesigning our courses, the question should be “what our students will be able to do” rather than “what this course should include.” And of course, there is employability, entrepreneurship and personal and professional development that are key considerations for this design. In fact, I felt quite proud to share our framework of our Employability Strategy because it goes beyond questions about the skills students need to emphasise the importance of developing students' citizenship, well-being, identity and happiness.

The third question referred to an underlying assumption of distance learners as lesser achievers than those on campus, in a subtle division between “us” and “them”. This is problematic because once again technology is being used to try to bridge the gap, without considering the particular environments, contexts and ways of learning of those students in other countries.

It is tempting to evaluate all our students (on campus and off campus) through a framework established in a British tradition (white Anglo-Saxon) that promotes certain ways of assessment and learning over others. This colonisation of the [distance learning] curriculum is the elephant in the room, which the seminar sought to explore through the discussions about potential ways of addressing this issue, with a specific tool developed by SOAS to decolonise the curriculum. Read the Decolonising SOAS Learning and Teaching Toolkit for Programme and Module Convenors.

This is alright, but in my personal view, decolonisation is only a part of a wider context of shifting ways of learning and knowing, and it cannot just be an exercise of planning but a continual enquiring of how we, as educators and also learners, are replicating anachronistic models, how our own dependence of technology is affecting the way we teach (eg the ‘powerpointization’ of knowledge and education), and how instead of trying to bridge the gap in distance learning, by bringing “here” those distance learning students, we can actually go out there and change our own ways of understanding their/our world by actually seeing it.

In summary, and accepting my total ignorance in the field, the seminar was an excellent way to reframe my own approach to learn about distance learning and hear from experienced academics and young innovators. Connecting with my own passion for Design Thinking, I will try to spend more time in the “What is” and the “Why”, before engaging in expensive technologies that do not really challenge the status quo of education.

Read more about teaching and learning technologies available at ARU.

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