Learning Technology jottings at Goldsmiths

Thoughts and deeds

Which ICT innovations could be disruptive to current higher education?

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One of the things about working in the area of e-learning is that you’re exposed to so many radical innovations that you have to be careful to keep your perspective about the difference between where they are and where we are now (while also, of course, being unendingly enthusiastic about the possibilities).

So when the JISC Observatory posed the follow question:

“We invite you to contribute to a brainstorm on the question: “Which ICT-based innovations are potentially disruptive to current models of higher education (forms of teaching, assessment, course structure, estate, research and research management, student management, etc…)?”

I wondered what the responses would be.

The survey consists of some paragraph responses, followed by some drag and drop questions which get you evaluating other (anonymous) responses. It’s interesting to see what other people thought. The deadline is December 10th 2010, so there’s plenty of time to think about it and respond.

I committed myself to two predictions. The first was to do with the open access movement and I wrote the following:

“It’s probably going to be this that focuses educational policy-makers’ minds on what makes higher learning distinct from the provision of materials and knowledge objects, and stimulates a diversification into the genuinely constructivist approaches to teaching and assessment that are already widespread in creative subjects like Design and Drama. If open access wins out over the current holding patterns of commercial providers, HEIs won’t have to provide materials for students any more – there will already be plenty out there, and in fact offering them on a plate will be denying students an opportunity because I think the HEI educator’s role (coming into sharper focus) will be much more about helping students identify good questions, turn those into objectives, work out what they need to do meet those objectives, find good supporting resources (material, human, infrastructure, etc) and put them into service. Assessment will still be about currency, accuracy, completeness etc, but much more it will be about how students can see clearly, work systematically and hunt out meaning in the glut of information.”

Of course, many educators already work like this – but in the face of opposing pressures such as forms of assessment, fees, some interpretations of the employability agenda, and some students’ expectations. Natalie Dohn (2009) writes about the consequent inertia of higher education institutions and their enduring view of learning as acquisitionist, having an “individualistic, objectivistic view of knowledge and competence” as “an individually possessed object which can be transferred between practices” as if higher learning could be boiled down to skills.

The second prediction was to do with the onlinification of the lecture. I wrote:

“There’s going to be a renewed interest in distance learning which will be mainly to do with the financial impetus to investigate new markets. The sector will begin to deeply understand the difference between technology-enabled distance learning and face-to-face learning, and the strengths and limitations of each. I think one-to-many lectures where students sit together but without interacting, will become rarer and rarer, limited to presenters who are both eminent in their area and also phenomenal live educators that way. Lecturing as we know it – where students sit silently listening to a academic at the front, without interacting together – will start to seem like a missed opportunity. I think what will happen is that students will be required to watch and listen to anything that can be transmitted in advance of the contact sessions, and it will only be carrying out these weekly tasks which enables them to fully participate in their course. Students will be required to work hard in every session, and they will be interdependent on each other. Face to face students in some disciplines will be joined by students connecting at a distance, and there will be a heightened appreciation of the role of togetherness in learning, which will begin to be educationally designed for. I worry that this will lead to segregation, by income, into face-to-face students who can pay for more opportunities to interact in person, and distance learning students who will have less interaction.”

I could have also mentioned freely available online communication and authoring tools (including multimedia editing and mashup tools) which will allow for different forms of assessment, and help to place more emphasis on process of authoring rather than just the finished product.

I ran out of steam for the next written answer questions, but then arrived at an interesting drag and drop question where you decide where to position others’ responses in relation to an epicentre of impact. Other people had mentioned open access and open data, and then there were mobile technologies and cloud computing, but the responses I positioned closest to the centre were the things whose use would prevent us from reproducing what we are already doing, or which I thought might dramatically catalyse existing social phenomena. I was bamboozled by the idea of brain enhancement. Sounds too expensive to be disruptive any time soon.

For a mixture of futurology and here-and-now see also this year’s Edge World Question Center’s annual question: how is the internet changing the way you think?

I’ll post the findings here once they’re published.


Dohn, N.B., 2009. Web 2.0: Inherent tensions and evident challenges for education. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 4(3), 343-363.


Written by Mira Vogel

December 1, 2010 at 20:26

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