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Over the last two weeks I have been travelling across Texas with a few colleagues from Swansea looking at the way in which Universities across the state have been using and developing educational technology in their programmes. It has been a real eye opener and a very informative trip, with a number of distinct possibilities for us to follow up and to link with colleagues in Texas on specific projects that will no doubt benefit the University back here in Swansea.
I have never thought of myself as any kind of pioneer in terms of educational technology, or any other kind of digital technology for that matter. I was always aware of other colleagues around me who could talk at length about the programmes they had found on line and the gadgets that they were using in their classes, and who seemed to be far more advanced in their thinking around the use of the digital in teaching than I ever was.
Having said that, however, I was always conscious, as I reviewed my classes each year, of things that might help to improve the way I got ideas across to the students, or enabled them to engage in the class and in their own learning. My first year module on the Introduction to Religion was always used as the basis for the development of study skills among the students, as all those who took degrees within Theology and Religion had to take this module as part of their first year. I was always seeking new ways, therefore, to provide experiential activities that embedded particular kinds of skill. I took to videos very early on, and asked the students to explore the use of religious imagery in adverts for deodorant or in the television trailer for some major football competition that was on at the time. I developed message walls, and chat rooms, with different years, in order to provide some kind of immediate feedback. I always asked the students to prepare group presentations on theoretical ideas in religion, and learnt a great deal from the students themselves about how to embed video and other activities into powerpoint. I moved over to Prezzi as soon as I could master it, because of the quality of presentation and the way in which it related to my own, more visual, form of thinking. I encouraged submissions by blog, by podcast, by video in order to develop particular skills among the students. I used whatever technology appeared to do the job I wanted to do as part of my learning outcomes from the module.
It was only very late in my time at Birmingham, however, that I actually came to realise that what I was doing was significantly in advance of many of my colleagues. I had been taken in by those who talked incessantly about their latest innovation, or what they had found of the internet, and assumed that everybody else was far more advanced in educational technology than me. I was never really interested in the technology per se. I often found it infuriatingly difficult to use. I regularly abandoned ideas because the students simply could not get their heads around it. For me it was the learning and the teaching that always came first. Technology was a tool to greater engagement, more in depth learning, better student experiences.
I found myself feeling something very similar as I traveled around Texas with my colleagues. There is no doubt we learnt a great deal. Universities in the States often have far more money to throw at things like educational technology. The Engineering College of one University is developing a whole new building specifically for education, and the mock-up of the room that they were designing as the model for interactive teaching spaces within the new building was mind blowing. The interactivity and the connectedness that was possible, not just within the room, but to remote locations across the globe, was phenomenal. Specific individuals were also highly inspiring in the work that they were doing to develop programmes, technologically enhanced learning and whole other worlds online in order to support their teaching and, perhaps more importantly, their student’s learning.
However, we also talked to a number of teams involved in what appears to be called ‘instructional design’, and recognised immediately the problems they were facing. The difficulty of encouraging ‘faculty’ (academic staff) to take up new ideas, particularly long standing tenured professors who had no incentive to develop their teaching. The lack of co-ordination between very independent colleges and a total lack of leavers in the centre to encourage anybody to use the same platforms, or to take up specific programmes. And, perhaps not surprisingly, a perceived shortage of funds, and personnel, to develop the kind of learning environment that the people responsible for this work would have wanted to see introduced across the campus. These were problems that we are very familiar with at Swansea, and many of those we talked to were envious of the amount of leverage and control that we actually had, and of the fact that a senior manager responsible for education within the university was interested enough in this work to join his colleagues on a fact finding mission in Texas.
What became very clear, was that we in Swansea are, in fact, so much further ahead in the area of educational technology than we really believe ourselves to be. We can hold our heads up high, and engage seriously with significant global universities in Texas. We are doing some things that they have not begun to explore, and we can share our good practice with them while learning from those areas where they are forging ahead. Most significantly, however, what came through most clearly, as we talked about what is happening in Swansea, is that our policy, our approach to learning technology is not essentially technology driven. We were constantly talking about the importance of technology to enhance student learning, the way in which our pedagogical training and reflection leads us towards technology, how we support colleagues as teachers and learners first and introduce the technology to support them in their role, and how the students experience always sits at the top of our agenda. Those we met across Texas enthused about what we are doing here in Swansea, and the whole trip actually made me very proud of what we have already achieved, and what we hope to achieve in the future. We may not, yet, be world leaders in this activity, but we are already doing far better than I think many of us believe that we are.