I was recently interviewed for a piece in Royal Holloway’s Alumni magazine Higher. Here’s a transcript of my responses.
Do you think traditional campus learning (lectures, books, etc.) is threatened by digital learning?
The sanctity of the classroom has long been a source of concern for teachers. At one time, even books were considered a threat. Plato wrote in Phaedrus that books will cause man to “implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks”
Lectures are not threatened by technology. Lectures and seminars, as well as independent and group study, can be enhanced and extended by the appropriate, informed, and measured use of technology, in whichever form it may take.
Our tenth year of supporting face-to-face teaching with our online learning system, called Moodle, is upon us. This blended approach to teaching, learning, and assessment has strengthened our campus-based learning; streamlined activities and processes; and provided new opportunities for teachers and learners. An example of this is the use of lecture recording. Students are now able to reinforce their understanding of a lecture and revise their notes at any time, from anywhere where they have internet access. This is very popular both with our home and international students, and not just during the exam period but throughout the academic year.
Can you foresee a time when Royal Holloway would do away with lectures altogether?
Research-intensive universities like ours can offer something unique; face-to-face time with, and feedback from, international experts in their respective fields. Our students deserve and demand this, and lectures are seen by many as the most efficient way of providing such access. It should be noted, however, that speaking to a large room of people is not necessarily the most effective of way of inspiring and empowering them. This is where, again, technology can augment lectures. For example, a number of academic departments have embedded the use of Smartphones and hand-held voting devices to support in-class interactivity. Many lecturers are now able to check and record attendance, run polls, and deliver live assessments during their lectures.
The concept and consumption of a lecture is therefore increasingly fluid – it’s changing all the time as lecturers adopt new technologies. Lectures as we have known them may be unrecognisable to our learners in 2025, but they will still be a vital part of the student experience.
What are the main benefits technology can bring to students?
Research shows that people learn more effectively when, among other things, they are active; have opportunities for dialogue; receive feedback; and have opportunities for consolidation. Our growing range of digital learning platforms and projects facilitate these conditions.
Moodle provides each taught course with an online space for academics, students, learning content, and assessment to come together. These communities can then interact independently of space and time. For a number of years now, large cohorts of English Under Graduate students have been divided with ease into small, intimate groups where they work together to develop and demonstrate their textual analysis skills. Their progress is evidenced by publication of written group work to online discussion fora, which only the group and their tutors can view. The tutors can move from the ‘sage on the stage’ role to become a ‘guide from the side’ as they view and comment on the work throughout the duration of the course.
Academic departments no longer have to print and distribute to students paper copies of handbooks and readings. These can now be made available online. This largely paperless approach is extended to students with the growth of e-assessment and e-submission. Last year, over 60 000 essays and submissions were submitted electronically by students. These were then digitally scanned for originality to preserve the academic integrity of a Royal Holloway degree. Over 20 000 were subsequently marked online, with the marks and feedback made available online to students. The rapid turnaround of written work; legible, timely, and personalised feedback are central to a positive student learning experience. This is supported by a recent survey (The RHUL Student Satisfaction Barometer, Autumn 2014), which showed very high levels of satisfaction among our students with regards to online learning and assessment provision (93.7%).
What are the main pitfalls of digital learning vs. face-to-face contact?
Skills and wills are central to success in this field. E-Learning will only deliver the benefits it promises when institutions provide space, time, and resources necessary to develop the skills required by teaching and administrative staff to critique, select, develop, and successfully embed appropriate technologies in teaching and assessment. This avoids the obvious pitfall whereby E-Learning is used to replicate rather than extend capabilities.
As with any digital technology, we must be wary of the approaches – theoretical and technical – that over-promise yet under-deliver. The history of education on the web is littered with many examples of this, e.g., Second Life.
How do you see digital learning developing over the next decade?
Quickly – more so than in the last 10 years. and much more quickly compared to the 30 years before that – yes, digital learning has been around for that long!
The Internet has revolutionised almost all aspects of daily life in the 21st century, including; commerce, industry, banking, government, communications, entertainment and travel. Higher Education has, although arguably to a lesser extent, also changed as a result of developments in online technology. In terms of delivery and consumption, however, education remains episodic and event-driven, with the weekly lecture being the foremost example of this. I expect that this will change in the same way that television is increasingly non-linear and consumed in ‘binges or bites’.
Featured image: NASA’s Hyperwall-2 Quarter-Gigapixel Display, accessed at https://flic.kr/p/fE9Euy and published here unchanged