A Knotty Problem

bury-your-head-in-the-sandA few weeks ago I provided technical support at a couple of online exams I’d been involved in. Keeping a long and dull story as short as I can, these exams had traditionally taken the form of paper-based tests, which were then marked individually and by hand by the course lecturers. I converted the papers into SCORMs, uploaded them to the university’s VLE, students then logged in, sat the exam, clicked on ‘submit’ and their results were calculated electronically. A nifty quick win – no staff time taken up with marking, no costly bits of ink-covered paper to get lost, students get their results immediately and the school looks a bit more cutting edge.

Having just read that paragraph back, I broke my promise to keep a long story short. But hey, we all need a little context.

This was the fourth or fifth cohort to work through the exam – and, as always, there were a couple of technical issues – thankfully, not with the exams themselves, but with students forgetting their passwords, etc. And that’s why I was there – to sort out these issues, and to fix anything that DID go wrong. My being there also meant that there was another invigilator in the exam room and everything went swimmingly.

Apart from one thing.

Another invigilator, on seeing that I had to help a student with an issue logging into the VLE wandered over to me and muttered, rather smugly: ‘Bring back paper exams. They never go wrong.’ I smiled politely, noticing an all too familiar pang of frustration in my belly, and started the arduous task of wandering around the exam room counting down the minutes until the exam was over and I could find coffee.

A few minutes later, the same member of staff wandered up to me again. ‘And pens’ she whispered. ‘Bring back pens. Much better than keyboards.’

‘I love pens.’ I replied. ‘In fact, I have a Waterman fountain pen that I use all of the time.  It’s got a gold-plated nib and everything!

‘Bet you don’t’ she retorted, that self-satisfied smile returning to her face. ‘I bet it’s never even seen an ink cartridge. Or a bit of paper.’

After a smattering of similar comments, the exam came to an end, and as I left the exam room to find that elusive coffee, a final comment – delivered at greater volume now that talking was allowed again –rang in my ears. ‘I still say technology is rubbish and we need to bring back paper and pens.’

Now, it has been a few years since the last time I felt verbally attacked by a member of teaching staff for liking technology.  The last time was back in 2009, when I was heavily involved in using Second Life for teaching. A colleague came into my sharted office, sat at a desk next to me and launched into a tirade about how I was setting a dangerous precedent because students with learning difficulties were being forced into using Second Life without understanding all the ‘sex and stuff that goes on there all the time.’ ‘It’s just a virtual knocking shop’ she humphed at me, eyes blazing and body language a bit too ‘in your face’ for my comfort. ‘And you are telling us that we have to use it in our teaching.  How do we assess anything? People like you are a danger to education!’  At this point, I must defend myself by saying that I had introduced Second Life to my colleagues as a possible addition to their teaching toolkit, to be used only if they had the time to learn how it worked and had an activity what would be more affective if delivered in a virtual world.

So in 2015, why is this still happening?

I would suggest that there are several contributing factors that are all linked, and in being linked, become impossible to disentangle.  Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you The Gordian Knot(s) of Technology Enhanced Learning. 

Knot 1. Staff do not have dedicated time within their timetables to learn how to use technology effectively (let alone innovatively) as part of their teaching practice. On top of long hours and a massive workload asking them to, effectively, become fluent (or at least conversational) in a new language in their own time is pretty unreasonable.

Knot 2. This has a knock-on effect. When staff use technology they have not had the time to really, properly learn, things often go wrong in the classroom and they feel embarrassed, flustered and vulnerable. Worse than that – they feel as if they have lost some of their ‘power’ over students. Because human nature means that we tend to avoid whatever it is that makes us feel powerless and vulnerable, they then decide to play it safe by not using any technology in the classroom or lecture theatre. Some even go a step further and start seeing technology as ‘a force for evil’.

Knot 3. There are also a lot of members of the teaching community that will openly admit to feeling threatened by technology. Only a few days ago I attended a meeting looking at using lecture capture, and a lecturer who had been approached to trial some new software wondered: ‘if you film my lecture and I don’t need to deliver it again…will I have my hours cut?’

Here’s the rub. This has been happening for years, and the problem isn’t going away. Instead, it stands prostrate, like an ostrich with its head in the sand, being studiously ignored and stepped around, while every minute of every day, new technologies come and go, new buzzwords and terms become part of the educational zeitgeist (MOOCs and flipped classrooms anyone?) and our friend Brer Ostrich just stands there, head safely tucked away, sand in his ears, refusing to move until retirement.

So what can we do to untangle these knots? Timetable in staff development time rather than expect teaching staff to find the time and motivation to teach themselves? This doesn’t work – for every one person that enthusiastically turns up to learn how to use Prezi, two more will attend but moan loudly about how busy they are, how Prezi just makes them feel seasick and how this time could be used more productively. Two more will not bother to turn up, but instead choose use the time ‘more productively’.

Go behaviourist on their asses and offer rewards for attending sessions?  This doesn’t work either. I know a learning technologist who set up some breakfast training sessions.  Come into college an hour earlier than usual, and we’ll teach you how to use Prezi AND give you a bacon roll and a coffee as well!  Over the course of 5 sessions, just 7 people turned up.

At this point, I’m tapped out for solutions.  Nothing seems to change, and nothing untangles the knots. I guess the only thing that will work is the march of time: eventually, naysayers will retire and be replaced with young, thrusting teachers who were born with smartphones in their chubby little baby hands.  In the meantime, this middle-aged learning technologist will just have to put up with the frustrations that continue to come with the job.

Unless anyone out there has any ideas?

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