Not just about new technologies…

As we might expect from a set of projects focussed on curriculum delivery innovation the Delivery projects are doing some very creative work with an incredibly broad range of technologies. These include virtual worlds and simulations, mobile technologies, learner portals, semantic technologies, video, audio, internet TV, assessment and e-portfolio technologies, and social networking tools and services. See Sheila McNeill’s CETIS blog for more detail.

Innovation doesn’t have to be about using new technologies though – it should primarily be about responding to real challenges, preferably articulated by the stakeholders involved in, and affected by, these. Sometimes small changes in existing practice can have the most far reaching effects. If we think about some of the work being done in relation to feedback and assessment, for example, the fundamental issues around how learners respond to feedback has more far reaching consequences than which technologies we can use to deliver that feedback. It helps if those technologies are appropriate and effective – projects are getting some positive responses from distance learners to feedback through podcasts for example. What podcasts offer is a more personal voice for remote learners.

Which brings me to the point of this post – sometimes the most appropriate technology is not the newest coolest stuff. The Delivery projects are doing some excellent work with technologies that are familiar to most institutions. The much criticised VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) plays a significant role in many of the project innovations. VLE’s have been criticised for being institutionally imposed monolithic systems which encourage the passive deposit of content behind authenticated barriers that support subject discipline silo’s. That the majority of the Curriculum Delivery projects are using VLEs creatively, and in a way that integrates with a range of other technologies, is some testament to the fact that both staff and students have embraced them and value them as an institutional support. Seven of the fifteen projects are using Moodle to support their activities, and have reported that the modular and flexible nature of this software has been significant in their choice. The KUBE project and the Making the New Diploma a Success project both have Moodle as the central element of their activities

It is worth drawing together some of the reasons that the use of VLEs is so pervasive across this programme of projects. It is highly valued by students as a portal to both their learning and support functions, including assessment and feedback handling. Remote students found the VLE to be a valued link to the institution when they were away on placements (MoRSE project) with VLEs offering reliable (mostly always available) and secure places for staff, students and others (such as industrial partners) to share information – both in terms of content and discourse. Several projects report that remote students (distance learners, work-based learners, placement students) value the VLE as a portal – as the place that things are brought together.

Perhaps this evidence of using familiar technologies reflects a need to make the most of what institutions have already invested in. I hope it reflects the fact that the projects are genuinely focused on pedagogy and on solving real problems, rather than finding a technology solution then seeking the problem to which they can apply it.  There is clear evidence of the importance of the good relationships between IT departments and projects in terms of developing and supporting system integrations and the deployment of technologies to allow the pedagogical innovations to take place. This may reflect the growing maturity in relationships more generally between staff involved across departments. Not least for me, it reveals how well these projects are listening to their stakeholders and finding sustainable ways to support and enhance their learning experience.

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