Op-Ed: Technology Enhanced Learning for teachers and students (part one)

Digital technology is part of our lives. Our education system should therefore prioritise the use of technology in teaching and learning and implement technology in education in a systematic and logical way.

This article appears in-full in this term’s issue of School News: Here Sue shares her thoughts on why TEL is so important, the barriers to setting up a coherent TEL programme in schools, and how these may be overcome.

A recent Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report on the ‘global education industry’ emphasised how “imperative” it is to innovate and implement digital technologies in teaching and learning. Yet the same report, Innovating Education and Educating for Innovation: The Power of Digital Technologies and Skills, also highlighted how, unlike in other areas of modern work, communication and entertainment, “the world of education and learning is not yet going through the same technology-driven innovation process.”

Why is this the case? Why does international research (and the anecdotal experience of many of my fellow educators) indicate gaps in the digital skills of both teachers and learners, and a corresponding mismatch between the potential and the actual use of Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) in today’s classrooms, despite its ubiquitous presence elsewhere? Why is technology often under-utilised in our schools?

‘Enhanced’ what?

Uncertainty on the part of many teachers is one problem – most especially, confusion about what TEL actually is. For example, what does ‘enhanced’ mean in the term Technology Enhanced Learning? The lack of a clear definition is exacerbated by a similar absence of  shared understanding of what enhancement is or could be.

In addition, it is very difficult for already overloaded teachers to decide on which TEL solutions to opt for. There is such a vast range of offerings, from social media forums to screencasting software to online voting tools – all coming with their own bewildering array of acronyms: VLE (Virtual Learning Environment), BL (Blended Learning) or FL (Flipped Learning) sessions. An introductory MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on “Blended Learning Essentials: Getting Started” from the University of Leeds mentioned over 60 different software possibilities! It is any wonder that teachers are struggling to keep up?

Nevertheless, the main factor contributing to the slow up-take of TEL in education is probably time. For instance, in the Q&A session of the Leeds MOOC, the lecturer, Prof Neil Morris, is very clear about the preparation time necessary for creating digital content: “The time investment is high.”

He estimates that it can take up to five times as long to create TEL materials, at least initially, as it does using more traditional methods. At the same time, however, he also makes it clear that the payoff in TEL comes in the quality of the student experience – e.g., learning gain, increased flexibility of access, inclusiveness and engagement. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the preparation of TEL materials requires a great deal of additional time – especially in the first instance and/or for inexperienced teachers.

More than just time

But it is not just the development of TEL materials that is extremely time-consuming. Maybe as a teacher, you are lucky enough to be in a department where TEL is already in place; if not, the first thing you have to do is find appropriate software to use. This entails ploughing through the internet, signing up for endless accounts and testing the software. The chosen application must then be thoroughly learned and practised so that you are confident in its delivery.

Next, coherent and appropriate materials have to be created and tested with students. Technology has the tendency to be problematic first time round and things will have to be modified after the initial testing. (In the online technology industry this process is called “usability testing” and it is a full-time job and distinct subject in itself.)

Additionally, the creation of TEL materials by classroom teachers will sometimes entail learning new skills in video, audio, animation and information graphics production needed to create good quality digital resources. Yet can we expect a time-strapped teacher to be totally responsible for this whole process?

Realistically, it is unreasonable to expect teachers to just ‘get on with it’ by themselves. After all, a teacher’s main job is teaching, with little time for extra work when potentially dealing with classes of 30+ students who all need attention. And that’s not even counting the marking, meetings, parent interviews, curriculum development, special needs, open days, and a host of other necessary activities that are part and parcel of a teacher’s job.

Yet while TEL is in competition for teachers’ valuable time, it is essential that it is given space to be developed. TEL should be implemented on a department- or institution-wide basis where all staff are given a clear direction, a clear choice of software to use and a support network where individuals can learn from/help each other.

Unfortunately, in my experience, what actually happens is that TEL occurs in a haphazard way. More enthusiastic staff members just get on with creating and using TEL materials themselves, while less tech savvy teachers simply avoid it. This results in an unbalanced implementation across the school, with students receiving very different learning experiences.

This is an article excerpt. See the full version in the print issue of School News. 

Sue Ollerenshaw

Sue Ollerenshaw is an experienced educator who has worked with all age and ability groups, from primary to tertiary level. Originally an English teacher, Sue retrained mid-career as a digital technology teacher. She is now about to undertake an MA in Education and Design, focusing on how Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) may best be implemented in educational settings.
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