Technology in education – a tool, not an end in itself

Jul 06, 2014

If Milton Keynes College had plans for a new engineering centre or kitchens for catering students or extra sports facilities, the final finished buildings would in all likelihood not be too far removed from the original plans. They would have been built because of a perceived need to improve our offering to students or to meet increased demand. 

When it comes to the use of digital technology in education, none of these certainties pertain. For digital technology is a profoundly disruptive technology, a general purpose technology if you will, whose transformational capacity is often little understood.

In recent weeks there has been an important report from, and government response to, the latest utterances of the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group. FELTAG has two remits; to find ways of improving the learning experience by the use of technology and to save money as a result of so doing. 

The group’s recommendations are many but they boil down to a drive to make better use of technology so that an initial proportion of ten percent of teaching in the FE sector can be delivered online.

The advantages of online delivery are potentially seductive. Less need for expensive buildings as more content and knowledge can be delivered anywhere at any time. When students come together it is for reflection, interrogation and discourse.

The disadvantages are also fairly plain to see. Does this new form of delivery axiomatically mean less face time is required from lecturers? Will students all be self-directing enough to use the technology as is planned? Will this new form of delivery really be as transformational and cost reducing for education as it has been for other industries? All these questions remain.

Of course we have been here before with the Open University. Younger readers might not realise it but it was the advent of the video recorder which made the OU possible. 

Aimed at working people who had missed out on their education, often through the necessity of earning a living, many of its lectures were delivered on BBC2 at dead of night, to be recorded by students for viewing at a time of their convenience. 

More recently we have seen the appearance of MOOCs, Massive Online Open Courses. A number of universities and other educational institutions now offer MOOCs completely free to anyone who wishes to take them. 

Apart from building their brands, the organisations running these course have a lot to gain. Their digital nature makes it possible to judge how well the courses and the teaching methods they employ work. 

Precise data is available for which assignments are completed by how many people and for how many drop out and when – all of which helps education providers refine their methods.

So in a sense this is not new territory and yet the impact of digital technology is not fully understood? Despite this, government has decided to set a target for FE of 10% online delivery of teaching from next year.

Taken to its logical conclusion, perhaps online learning will one day completely replace the classroom experience. Young people prove every day that they can create communities as vibrant and interactive among themselves online as any physical get together. Importantly, some clearly feel more comfortable communicating with others in this way. 

For the ‘digital natives’ – those born into a world where computer use was already widespread – the challenges they perceive in all this may be completely different from those of older generations. Technology can be wonderfully helpful and we’re still evaluating our pioneering tablet project at MK College held in collaboration with Dell, Microsoft and the aforementioned OU. 

What we really need, is to understand the needs of the customer, who in this case also happens to be the expert.

The plan here at the College is to set up a number of forums, possibly big set-piece events, maybe smaller more informal ones or even both. To be honest, we could do with their advice on that too. Should these be face-to-face events or should they be streamed? Should they take the form of paper or digital questionnaires or a series of conversational tweets?

In truth, this is probably as big a step into the unknown as state education has ever faced. 

 If we get it right, the benefits, educational and financial could be almost without limit. If we get it wrong, we could alienate and let down an entire generation of learners and teachers. 

One thing we can’t do, is go back to the drawing board. They were all chucked out when we put in the computers.

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