I was very flattered to be asked to speak at a debate-style session at Jisc Digifest. The Motion was “Digital technology is fundamentally changing learning and teaching in Higher Education”. Prof Neil Morris of Leeds University was speaking for the motion, I was to speak against. The opposite of preaching to the converted: my job was to put the cat amongst the pigeons.

I went about preparing for it in my usual fashion: grand plans, exploratory conversations with colleagues and a lot of procrastination. My ideas for visual gags involving devils horns on avocados or Advocaat bottles were rejected by people with more sense than me. I hadn’t really pulled all my ideas together so in the end my contribution came in three parts that don’t quite join up. The article was written with the help of journalist Michelle Pauli who worked from a transcripted conversation we had to create something printable. Then there was my script for my opening statement. Then it went a bit more freeform with my responses to Neil Morris.

I’ve had a good response to this slight mish-mash of positions, and in conversations with people and I’ve realised I have more to say, hopefully more articulate than what I’ve managed so far. So I now have an ambition to come at this again and write a coherent blog post.

But for now, this post will serve as an archive of my contribution to the talk. And a record of my personal impact, which I like to call “pimpact”.

Article in Jisc Digifest (thanks to Michelle Pauli)

Script – See Below

Recording – At about -38 minutes, towards the end. Not sure how long this video will be available.

Storify – curated by me in a brief spell of “vanalytics” (my phrase for vanity analytics)

Huge thanks to Sarah Davies at Jisc for inviting me to do this, and to Neil Morris for his side of the debate.
Thanks also to people for their help with my prep: Mary Stott, Kerry Pinny, Jim Judges, Melissa Highton, Helen Beetham, Tim Dumbleton-Thomas, Sue Thomas, Emma Melia, Russell Boyatt, Ross Mackenzie, Lawrie Phipps, Mark Stiles, Paul Hollins … and without her knowledge, Audrey Watters ;-). Plus anyone else I forgot to thank.

Script – Opening Statement

What kind of idiot would come to a jisc event and argue against that?


I’ve worked in educational technology since 1999. For national agencies Becta and Jisc, and for five universities. I’ve worked on big change initiatives: National Grid for Learning, Ferl, National Learning Network, and in HE open access research, Jorum and open educational resources.

Now I lead the central eLearning team at Warwick University.

I’ve spent my career working with digital technologies in education

And yet I’m here to argue against the motion that digital technologies are fundamentally changing teaching and learning in HE.

Why? Have I been wasting my time?

Some people argue that HE isn’t changing.

Some people argue that the main modes of teaching and learning remain unchanged over the past century or more. People sat in rows in classrooms and lecture theatres, factory style education. Chalk. Mortarboards. Reading textbooks. Submitting handwritten essays to the departmental secretary. Looking up marks on the noticeboard in the corridor.

Some of those things still happen.

But some things have changed, YES …

The students might not be sat in rows.

They might have screens, in their pocket or in front of them.

The academic at the front might have moved through banda photocopies to OHP acetates to overhead projectors, to digital screens. The presentation technology might actually have changed a lot. And maybe the academic’s delivery style might be a bit different as they become comfortable with it.

And beyond the classroom, there are new forms of digital content: there are ebooks now, ejournals, content on the VLE, video/audio resources, all easily accessible on the student’s own device. That wasn’t possible 20 years ago.

The essay is word-processed and submitted online. It might be marked online. It is probably plagiarism checked online. The marks and feedback are available online.

YES. Digital technologies have changed the way that digital content is produced, presented and consumed. You can have that one.

Digital technologies have also changed the way people communicate across space and time. Email is ubiquitous. What people do with it is an interesting question.

But yes. Content is different these days. And email use is widespread.

Has that created a fundamental change to teaching and learning? Is that enough?

Often what people can do at university is less than what they can do in the wider world.

* When I bought my last car, I provided a digital signature to a graphics pad.

* When I need to upgrade my phone, I chat with an advisor online.

* When I go to the airport I used to print my own ticket, now I just scan the QR code.

We’re living in the future, people. It’s pretty cool.

Lets use these technologies to streamline the administrative transactions required to move into, and through, university. Lets go paperless and self-service and more efficient. Lets do it.

But we’re looking for fundamental change, and I think that means in how we teach, maybe even what we teach?

We talk about interactivity, flexibility and personalisation.

Teams like mine spend a lot of our time encouraging academics to try basic things. Sometimes they don’t see why they should.

We all know some excellent practitioners. But many many others are not convinced, and they are not making use of the tools beyond the obvious. They don’t see the need to change.

Technology is a tool, it has to be used.

If academics don’t want to change the design of their programme and modules, then they won’t use technology to do it. The practices won’t change just because “there’s an app for that”.

If we don’t remind ourselves of that, as institutional educational technologists, we fall into a dangerous trap.

We encourage a belief in digital pixie dust.

I think we have to tell the hard truth: that this is about staff decisions, about curriculum design, about changes to what and how we teach.

There is no pixie dust.

But there are plenty of expensive products available for universities to waste their money on and blame us when the products don’t work.

In summary

I think digital technologies have changed content and communication. But if we’re looking for substantial change in what and how we teach then I don’t think digital technologies have fundamentally changed teaching and learning in HE.

And we should be very wary of claiming that it could.


Notes – Discussion

I said something about the barriers to flexibility, something about scale (how much adoption of new practices count as change?) and something about speed. Something about information literacies and post-truth, and whether universities were fast enough in responding to that. We touched on unbundling, and the dangers of Uberification and Neil had some very good answers about what might drive the adoption of new models of provision.