Digifest 2017: Lessons in technology-enhanced learning

Earlier this week, I took a bit of time away from research to attend Digifest, a two-day conference run by Jisc, the digital education solutions provider. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the event, but when I discovered that it was taking place in my hometown of Birmingham, I decided it was worth investigating.

Although I was only able to stay for the first day, on Tuesday, I had a really positive experience of the event. It was a typical conference-style set-up with stalls and stands run by start-ups and educational providers in the main hall, plenaries and large-scale talks in a lecture theatre, and smaller workshops / breakout sessions in communal spaces or meeting rooms. The variety of sessions on offer was impressive – both in terms of the content and the format they were delivered. There was an inspiring talk by presenters from Oxford Brookes University and the University of Ulster on what teaching excellence looks like in a technological age, a useful workshop session on getting undergraduates engaged with digital archival work, and the day was rounded off with a debate about whether technology was changing the learning process in HE (answer: yes and no, but mainly yes – I’ll discuss this more in a future post!).

The programme for the event looked impressive, but what was really pleasing was the amount that I took away from presentations that I initially wasn’t that interested in, or that I went to by accident. Perhaps one of the most inspiring sessions was led by a team of lecturers and learning practitioners from Forth Valley College, in Falkirk, Scotland. They were talking about some of the tools they had used to get students in FE engaged in learning including smartphone apps such as Aurasma and the online Toolkit Xerte, developed at The University of Nottingham. Although I work with digital methodologies in my research, and have been devoting a lot of my pedagogical reading to exploring technology-enhanced learning in Higher Education, I’d never come across either of these tools. During this session, it really hit home to me how much we, as facilitators in ‘traditional’ universities can take away from the teaching practices of FE colleges.

 

What can HE tutors learn from creative teaching in FE colleges?

At Forth Valley College, one of the tutors on a vocational course in heating engineering had used the app Aurasma to overcome some of the health and safety issues associated with teaching in a space with lots of electrical and mechanical objects, which students might not be trained to use safely. Aurasma allows users to hover their smartphone over certain images or objects in a room; these images and objects are linked to videos or pictures, which appear when scanned in the app. In an FE setting, vocational engineering students could use their phones to scan electrical circuit boxes; a video, created by the tutor or by other students would then appear, showing them what was inside. The app allows students to explore and learn about the wires and components inside the circuit box, without having to open it up and expose themselves to dangerous electrical configurations which they are not yet trained to handle safely.

Of course, such health and safety concerns are not so pressing when you’re teaching Modern Languages in a university context. However, perhaps because it was so far removed from my own teaching experiences, the innovative ways of delivering vocational training I saw at Digifest did push me to think creatively about how we could appropriate the digital tools used in FE in my own environment. I realised that this kind of a tool could revolutionise plenary sessions. What if, instead of rounding off a series of lectures and seminars with a stand-and-deliver plenary session, we used an augmented reality timeline to give an overview of the course. My examples have been with poetry but it would perhaps work even better with social / political topics. So, what if we start with a series of physical pictures displayed along the walls of a lecture theatre, then ask students to record a short video on a particular topic – a poem, a political event – making sure that each individual or group has a different theme?The students could then upload their video by a set deadline: it would then be easy to generate a QR code to attach to the physical pictures, so that each one could be scanned by a smartphone and a video would pop up. I’m not sure whether I see a need for getting to grips with Aurasma, as QR codes work so simply, but, in principle, I see this as a tool which could totally revolutionise my own teaching.

The question of whether to use designated apps such as Aurasma, versus the trusty QR code raises another important question over the implementation of technology in the classroom, particularly when students are being asked to use their own personal devices for educational purposes. After all, my own smartphone doesn’t have enormous amounts of storage, and I’m loath to take up precious space with extraneous apps; I’m sure that your average student (even if they have a better phone than I do!) would rather keep their storage for YouTube, Spotify and Snapchat than clog it up with pedagogical tools. I get that, so we need to make sure that we’re using the apps and programs that they engage with already: this saves everyone time, as students don’t have to install and get to grips with yet another new pedagogical tool.

 

How to cater for everyone’s needs in HE?

One of the major strengths of Jisc’s Digifest for me was the open-minded approach that the facililtators and presenters took to the implementation of digital in the classroom. There was a huge awareness of the pitfalls of excessive or indiscriminate use of technology enhanced learning. It was accepted that using digital tools in the classroom does not automatically help students to learn more, or to learn better. The presenters understood that not all tutors and lecturers want to have more technology in their teaching, and the first day of the conference was so much better for that. Perhaps the most important thing for me was that the event always kept in mind what students want and what students need (as opposed to what curriculum designers, module leads and ed tech companies think they want). I’ve heard a lot of people criticise higher education (along with many other sectors) for being run by old white men. I personally have no problem with old white men in top positions in HE (of course, I want non-white people and definitely women to be running things too, with everyone as equals, but let’s not malign old white men – they can’t help falling into this category!), as long as they’re where they are because they manage HE institutions well, as long as there are other groups represented in the sector and as long as they’re listening to what students want, rather than pushing for what they think students want. Digifest was a good opportunity to remind tutors, lecturers and especially course designers to talk to their students about what they want from their courses.

Regardless of age and level of tech engagement, I think it’s very hard to know what our students do want. I may be a comparatively “young person” to be working in HE, and like the vast majority of Modern Language students, I also happen to be a woman, which might make me more in tune with students’ interests than our poor, maligned old white man. That said, the start of my RA post came exactly a decade after beginning my own undergraduate studies, and a lot has changed, especially where tech is concerned (I find it hard to imagine a student night out without carrying round a huge 5 megapixel digital camera!). In any case, university tutors and lecturers are a strange breed. We love our subject enough to spend years doing postgraduate study (mostly in our early twenties, when our contemporaries were enjoying freedom from study, and their first proper pay packets) – most of our students probably don’t want to follow in our shining example, and that’s just fine – each to their own. But if we don’t know what students want, we definitely need to keep asking them – and not just by getting them to fill in evaluation forms and NSS surveys. We need to find out what they want by talking to them: I’d really like to see students more involved in curriculum design, perhaps with select representatives from the student body serving as digital ambassadors, keeping us – the old men designing and delivering courses, the young women leading and facilitating learning, and all the teachers, lecturers and facilitators in between – up-to-speed with how undergrads want to use tech to enhance their own learning. How would our practice change if we had tech ambassadors from the student body, who could discuss with their peers and enter into a meaningful dialogue with their tutors about how technology could enhance their learning?

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