Improving student learning: it’s not about technology

Last week I was part of a panel presentation session at the HE Expo with Fiona Strawbridge, UCL and Phil Tubman, University of Lancaster. Our brief was to talk about how technology could be used to improve student learning.  Even though we hadn’t talked about it before, we all presented complementary viewpoints. Fiona talked about the creation of their e-learning strategy through student engagement with scenarios, Phil discussed how important opensource tools are for engaging students and I focused on three areas where technology could help us.  I did my presentation on prezi which is embedded below:


For me, its not about technology per se but about what you do with it that improves student learning. You could have the most amazing kit in the world but still have pretty poor student learning. I identified three, overlapping, uses of technology that could improve student learning. So technology as an ENABLER – enabling our learners to achieve more and better outcomes, a CATALYST to encourage our staff and students to act and an inspiration – to INSPIRE them to change their practice. The photos are examples of what we have been doing at City in relation to educational technology that can fall into these three areas.

1. Technology as an enabler

Technology is not powerful in itself, its power lies in what it ENABLES us to do when used appropriately. I am always talking about technology as an “enabler” and generally most people agree that it is not about technology alone.  Usually, I would argue, technology is the “easy” bit but getting people to use it, particularly in a meaningful way in relation to education, is more challenging.   The two first photo examples are technology assisting with student engagement. So in the first, a lecturer is using classroom clickers and polling software in a lab session to assess student learning and understanding. This enables him to gauge the understanding of students, pace his session and measure the learning within the classroom. Students too are then able to gauge how much they have gathered during the session. This technology is being developed to utilise social media, such as polleverywhere and could be combined with data to assist with student achievement. The second is a nursing student interacting with a simulation in our simulated learning environment.  For nursing students hands-on practice is vital but not always possible. Simulations enable them to learn on the job without endangering life!

The second set of photos explore multimedia technology in learning. The first is our TV studio where journalism students in particular can experience first hand what a real TV studio is like and the second our lecture capture system which enables lecturers to record face-to-face lectures for students to access at a later point. This is particularly useful for overseas students and those for whom English is not a first language. None of this is about the technology but what it ENABLES us to do as academics to improve student learning opportunities.

2. Technology as a catalyst

This is a really important one. People often talk about technology as a “Trojan horse” enabling change and exposing existing, sometimes poor or ineffective processes. This was certainly part of the rationale behind us introducing a virtual learning environment (VLE) over 10 years ago at City.

When we came to update that VLE 4 years ago, instead of merely replacing one system with another, changes to the technology acted as a catalyst to provoke an institutional wide rethink of our approach to technology. We invent a new strategy and developed the Strategic Learning Environment to demonstrate how technology fitted with our pedagogic models and created a vision for the future of educational technology at City.  None of this was about the VLE per se but about what we intended to do with and how we could engage students more effectively.

The second set of photos are two different approaches to learning. Here is our video and audio presentation system, Connect, which has provided opportunities for lecturers to engage in video assessment and create online video chat sessions with students as part of an online lecture. This has opened up opportunities for distance learning and supervision remotely.  The top photo is the outcome of a workshop run with students where they were imaging scenarios for the changes in HE and what it would look like in 10-15 years from student perspective. Here students consider the influx of private providers into the market and how this could result in the commodification of degrees, especially as private providers move into providing degrees online. Technology acted as a way into discussing new concepts and ideas and how changes in technology could impact on education.

3. Technology as inspiration

And that student presentation brings me nicely to my last point. There is sometimes angst expressed about whether technology should led pedagogy or vice versa, but for me that is the wrong argument.

Technology can be great at inspiring us to think differently and provide opportunities but it should not limit us.

The photo on the left might look like a rather pedestrian workshop but it is about using prezi to create different kinds of presentations.  Students were inspired after seeing a prezi to think how they could use it to present ideas differently.  The other photo is our Learning Development Showcase where staff can meet other staff who have been innovating in learning and teaching methods, particular with technology. This is a great way of sharing ideas and inspiring different thinking. And recently these projects have had to involve students.

Changes to technology are driving changes to our physical environment to improve student learning and interaction within taught sessions. These are examples of our flexible rooms that include flexible seating, squiggle glass, multimedia pods and node chairs. We have engaged with students in the design of these rooms and the feedback is overwhelming positive. These new flexible rooms, whilst not about technology in itself, utilise things like the wireless network and our AV pods to encourage creative thinking and new learning and teaching techniques.


In conclusion then, technology is integral to improving student learning because it can act in these three ways: as an enabler, a catalyst and an inspiration for staff to provide new learning opportunities and for students to act as co-creators of knowledge. It does not do this in itself, but you need to combine it with a clear vision and motivated staff to enable it to be most effectively applied for students to achieve the best outcomes.


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