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A Postcard from the Digital Beach

Here at the Exeter Uni’s Teaching and Learning Conference, Helen and I set up a stall for the Exeter CASCADE project, which got a lot of traffic.

First of all, let me explain why we stood out from the crowd. Every other stall looked like this:

ExeterDigitalBeachOtherStalls

And our stall looked like this:

DigitalBeachNikki

DigitalBeachHelenandNikki

So besides my excitement about wearing my favorite Hawaiian dress, what else happened?

We talked to a lot of people, and a big rang of people too. Because the event was in our university’s recently opened Forum building, a lot students were there as well as staff who weren’t attending the conference. It’s interesting how much digital technology excites people’s interest- whether they were happy about digital technology or not. I watched a TedX film recently talking about how education is a topic that everyone has something to say about. Digital technology is quite the same I think.

We asked people to fill in papers and leave them in a bottle, a ‘message in a bottle’ responding to the statement ”Help! I could really make good use of digital technology in my teaching/studies, if only…”, and then we asked people to contribute to our wall wiki, titled ‘how is digital technology changing your discipline.

Like our conversations, the responses on our wall wiki and our bottle brought out a lot of the contentious nature of the whole ‘digital literacy’ thing. People’s messages in the bottle were varied:

‘Help! I could really make good use of digital technology in my teaching/in my studies if only…’
….I was brave enough
Greater access to mobile projection facilities (this was Helen, making a comment about a certain IT service…)
…I can ensure human support is also available to help me develop the confidence and skills I need to ‘exploit’ the digital age…i.e. training
…more open course content creation. Student uploads
…I had someone to call on when things went wrong (someone who teaches + can spend time with me- not a technician).
…we had the resources to match our ideas.
…there was opportunity outside the course modules to learn more I have access
….more classes on how to innovate within new technologies in English
…I had more time to learn how to do it well/properly.
…I could have time and a person to take me through it + make it happen. I think I am untrainable, so I need a trained partner
…it was easier to collaborate with external partners (NHS)

Because people’s relationships with technology are different, and because people are different, I guess it makes sense that people would have some different answers to that statement. What I think it interesting is how many of these people’s answers involved a human element. People weren’t putting their solutions on the technology, they were putting them on human resources. They wanted to change their own human resource, or wanted people to help them through.

Keeping in mind that this is a very small sample of a dispersed group of people ranging from undergraduate students to students skills advisers to Professors, I wonder how this sample would differ from a sample of PhD students or early-mid career academics? Because from our survey and interview data, it seems that PhD students are a group of people who tend to have a strong drive to self-teach and find information. They made many comments about being hindered by a lack of access to technology, not human resource.

The answers to the question ‘how is digital technology changing your discipline?’ were similarly varied. Some were positive, others were negative. Interestingly, negative comments about this subject seem to focus on teaching and learning whereas positive comments seem to focus on research and developments in the field around that. It’s not just this wall wiki that made me aware of this divergence. Why is that? Why should we have such divergent attitudes towards technologies role in teaching and learning as we do in research when we are pushing a research led education agenda? More research should be done to understand how undergraduate students compare to professors in terms of thoughts about how digital technology is changing teaching and learning, and also research practices.

Here is a small version of our wall wiki:
How Digital Technology is changing your discipline

So, you see, there is excitement and there is critical reservation, all present.

You might think that some of the differences in attitudes are disciplinary. However, in our research with PGRs, it was interesting that there were students from the same discipline exhorting opposite perspectives. There were students both in Humanities and in Mathematics saying that we overemphasize the digital. And there were students in Social Sciences demanding more from the University, expecting it to guide them into the future, which will be overwhelmingly digital.

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