Technological tails and pedagogical dogs

Charley Stoepker

Credit: Charley Stoepker by Marta Stoepker (cc)

An important part of the Institute for Teaching, Innovation and Learning’s activity is promoting and advising on the effective use of learning technologies and to encourage best practice within the University of West London.

My interest in educational technologies has grown rapidly during my 10 years of work as an HE lecturer. Having experienced a range of learning technologies, both as a lecturer and a student, I do believe they have a great potential to enhance learners’ experience by allowing greater flexibility, fostering engagement and widening opportunities.

This is not to say that applying learning technologies in everyday teaching practice is entirely straightforward. There is always the worry about how much time it’s going to take, whether students will engage with it, whether their experience and learning will improve as a result, and so on. But, come to think of it, introducing and testing new teaching solutions has always been part and parcel of the job – whether we update teaching materials, revise pedagogical approaches or otherwise reflect on professional practice, we always strive to make things work better.

In this context, what I found really useful when thinking about the role of learning technologies in teaching was the oft-repeated ed-tech mantra that we should not let the technological tail wag the pedagogical dog. Just as the mere presence of a flipchart and a marker in a classroom does not automatically turn students into the most engaged and motivated of learners, a technological intervention needs to be convincingly embedded in the overall module design – or, in other words, constructively aligned with the learning outcomes and assessment – to produce desirable results. Students engage with technology much better and more spontaneously when they see its immediate relevance to their learning, when they understand the “why” of an activity and not just the “what”.

For me, it is always easier to start with the end in mind: first identify the desired results and then work from there to develop a pedagogically sound solution. For instance, I noticed that my students lacked awareness of the importance of seeking professional help and advice from peers, which is common practice in the translation industry (my background is in literary and translation studies). I thought that as a by-product of working on their translations, they should learn how to ask questions of peers to receive useful responses that would help them in their practice.

An obvious tool to accomplish this would be a VLE discussion forum. However, the next question was how I was going to see if students had actually learnt anything. I could assess the quality of the content of their posts, however this felt a little unfair as they were not professionals yet and I was worried that focus on quality would discourage them from spontaneous interaction which was the crux of the activity. And I wanted to reward collegial spirit and foster the development of a community of practice.

A solution was to set up an online discussion forum modelled on existing professional discussion groups for translators, and to make reflection on engagement with peers a part of larger assessed coursework (rather than assessing the quality of their posts, which would be too time-consuming for an activity that was only a small element in a much larger project). In this way, students were motivated to engage with their peers as they wanted to gather enough material to have something to reflect on, and at the same time they were developing useful professional skills.

This is a simple example of starting with the end in mind.  A similar process is convincingly discussed in this article, where it is dubbed the “backward design process”. In this process, designing a syllabus or an activity consists of (1) identifying desired results, (2) determining acceptable evidence, and only then (3) planning learning experiences.

Designing technological interventions for learning and teaching is not much different from designing any teaching materials and activities in general – the same principles on constructive alignment apply. Academic Developers in TEL at INSTIL work with colleagues on finding solutions to pedagogical challenges – to make everyone’s experience just a little bit better.

Author: Dr Agata Sadza recently joined the Institute for Teaching, Innovation and Learning at the University of West London as an Academic Developer in Technology Enhanced Learning, having previously worked as a Senior Lecturer in Applied Translation. Agata has contributed to a chapter on blended learning in the recently published, Enhancing Teaching Practice in Higher Education

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