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What impact has educational technology had on higher education teaching and learning practice?

Phillips, R. (2009) What impact has educational technology had on higher education teaching and learning practice? In: EDUCAUSE Australasia 2009, 3-6 May 2009, Perth, W.A.


This presentation will reflect on claims made over recent years about the potential of various educational technologies to fundamentally change educational practice.

The last decade has seen many pressures on the higher education environment. Student participation rates have increased markedly in an environment of decreasing Government Funding. Class sizes have increased, as have student/staff ratios. As a corollary, the ability of incoming students has decreased– there is now a very diverse student body, from various language backgrounds with up to 50% non-school leavers.

Student expectations of study have also changed over the last generation. Study is not the only priority for today’s students. They balance their study with work, family and leisure commitments. Australian university students work an average of 15 hours per week. Recent research also indicates that many students don’t feel part of the university - they feel alienated by the culture of university, and this is exacerbated by increasing class sizes. A related factor concerning decreased engagement with the learning environment is that students want media-rich experiences and they do not typically get this in their units.

Over the last generation, a fairly clear understanding has emerged about the nature of the learning environment which can equip learners for the current era. This involves a largely constructivist pedagogical philosophy, a deep approach to learning, a studentcentred approach to teaching and outcomes-centred subject design. There is a focus on the needs of the student, recognising that learning is personal and social, and the role of the teacher is that of a facilitator or guide.

A further research finding is that students can learn how to learn, and this is important in the context of the diverse abilities of students entering university.

However, the teaching practice of many staff in most universities pays little heed to research about learning, and students are still taught in the way they were a hundred years ago, using a teacher-centred lecturing model with an emphasis on final examinations and little emphasis on scaffolding learning skills. The use of lectures pervades the culture of universities: units of study are defined by the number of lectures; workload allocation is based on teaching hours; and academic titles (lecturer, reader, professor) privilege a lecturing approach. They began in the middle ages, when books were scarce, and the lecturer (reader) read the book to a class, because it was the most efficient way for learners to access the content of a particular book. However, the traditional lecture approach is “legitimised only by 800 years of tradition” (Laurillard 2002: 93).

Lectures are a useful teaching technique in that they are cost effective, they can engage and motivate students and they can connect the lecturer and the student. Bligh’s research indicates that “Lectures can be used to teach information, including the framework of a subject, but an expository approach is unsuitable to stimulate thought or change attitudes.” (1972: 223).

In other words, lectures are just one tool in the academic’s toolbox - a range of other teaching tools are available such as tutorials, practicals, assignments. However, these other activities are not accorded the same level of importance at the university policy level.

The traditional model of university teaching is inappropriate to meet the needs and pressures of the 21st century: it poorly adapts to increasing student diversity and their need for flexibility and it is inconsistent with what is known about how people learn at university. Some individuals attempt to adapt their practices, but meet with inertia makes it difficult for them.

The presentation will then consider the impact of educational technology on higher education. There is a fairly clear understanding that educational technology provides tools which students can use in developing their own understanding of subject matter. This is consistent with the student-centred approach to learning suggested above,

However, such use is not widespread. Technologies such as Learning Management Systems have been widely adopted at universities worldwide, but research into usage logs has shown that this technology has been used overwhelmingly to replicate teacher-centred approaches.

A second technology which is becoming increasingly widespread is Web-based lecture recording technology. This technology is designed to support a traditional pedagogical approach based around largely one-way mass lectures. Recent research into the use of this technology strongly supports the view that it has successfully achieved this aim: students enjoy using it, and claim that it supports their study while providing much-needed flexibility in their study options. Staff appreciate the flexibility it provides for students, and particularly the advantages it provides for external students.

However, this success has posed a challenge to lecturers, in that, in many cases, student attendance has dropped. Substantial numbers of students also reported that they did not regularly attend lectures. Students reported that they found lectures valuable, but they did not need to attend them to learn from them.

A small number of academics responded little change in attendance patterns. These staff had changed both the way they taught and the structure of their units, and they had the most positive perceptions of web-based lecture recording technology.

The presentation will then spend some time on the human, institutional and cultural issues which impede the widespread adoption of improved teaching practice. The personal beliefs and mental models of lecturers is one issue. “If educational development is about creating environments that encourage deep approaches to learning, then change in the mental models of lecturers is a key aspect of the process.” (Frielick, 2002: 16)

However, even when academics implement innovations based on the espoused theory aimed at meeting the needs of students, often their efforts are not sustainable. This is because innovation by an individual takes place in the context of other units within the discipline. Individual innovation needs to articulate with other units and it may be inconsistent with a policy environment based on old models. This innovation can be undermined by the beliefs about teaching of students and colleagues. The support of the head of school is especially important.

Beliefs about how teaching is done at university is deeply entrenched in the university worldview. Universities began in the pre-modern era, where knowledge was revealed and controlled, and control of knowledge pervades the culture of universities today. Universities evolved during the modern era, where knowledge was seen as existing independently, where it could be discovered. These views also pervade the culture of universities today, underpinning the traditional view of teaching. On the other hand, current understanding about how people learn is based very much on a postmodern viewpoint, where knowledge is contextual and constructed.

The premise of this presentation is that for change to occur in university teaching, and for educational technology to meet its potential to support this change, we must address institutional beliefs about university teaching. A very relevant question is why is university teaching and learning not informed by research? A strength of universities is the ability onal technology to meet its potential to support this change, we must address institutional beliefs about university teaching. A very relevant question is why is university teaching and learning not informed by research? A strength of universities is the ability of their staff to apply analytical skills to problems and issues in the world. What is needed here is for universities to apply their analytical skills to their own practice, that is, an expanded research agenda which looks at institutional barriers to change.

Item Type: Conference Paper
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Teaching and Learning Centre
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