Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Fear of the new

Why does education and especially the higher levels have such a suspicious attitude towards technology? You would expect universities to be at the forefront of pedagogical innovation but ironically it would seem to be reluctant to try new methods, despite all the MOOC hysteria of recent months. If you want to see innovative use of educational technology you probably need to look at elementary and nursery schools where tablets are especially used to encourage and facilitate reading, writing and counting skills through games and stimulating apps.

This issue is raised by Lord David Puttnam, chancellor of the Open University, who claims in an article in the Daily TelegraphFear of technology may hold back change in education, says Lord Puttnam, that higher education is the most conservative educational sector when it comes to adopting technology. He fears that change is being held back by fear.

He called for more encouragement and support for teachers, to help them integrate technology into a classroom setting.“What has surprised me is that the most positive and most adventurous professionals are primary school teachers,” he said. “There is a wonderful sense of hope in primary schools and a wonderful sense of how to make the learning experience better.”
He went on to say that the most reluctant to adopt new digital methods of teaching in many – but not all – cases, were those working in higher education.

He claims that many teachers and decision makers feel uneasy about the challenges of embracing technology and fear that jobs will be lost as content is recorded and distributed globally. Deciding to integrate the potential of social media and net-based tools into the curriculum is a bit like opening Pandora's box; once you lift the lid you suddenly have to deal with a whole flock of demons. These demons are not evil in this case but they challenge a lot of traditions and mindsets in higher education. You will need to reassess the role of the teacher/student/university, you will need to revise your policies and strategies, assessment and examination methods, IP rights and quality assurance criteria.It's not surprising that many prefer to keep the lid on.

So why is innovation more prevalent with the youngest learners? Maybe because it's the area least weighed down by tradition, where rankings and status are of little importance, where learners are internally rather than externally motivated and where concepts such as "play" and "games" are encouraged rather than treated with suspicion. It's also because the stakes are so much higher at university so there is a natural fear that any less than perfect innovation may damage the university's reputation. Reputation is paramount in the extremely competitive world of higher education so even slight changes of course risk drawing black marks from government inspectors. Radical changes in how courses are run must be extremely well planned and must be fully explained to prospective students to avoid negative evaluations from those who don't understand or support the new regime.

Lord Puttnam is right in much of his criticism but universities are caught in a crossfire today between demands for radical change and demands to battle for the best placings in world rankings that reward those who remain true to tradition. Whichever way you go you get fired on. Time for new university rankings that reward innovation, use of technology and above all pedagogical excellence.


  1. Great post. I would like to illustrate it with two typical responses I got when introducing blended learning. My menagement asked me whether that would mean I plan on not coming to work. My course head asked whether that would mean more work for him. Setting them all at ease, I got a green light.

  2. A very common reaction Anita. Successful implementation of e-learning demands commitment and understanding from decision makers. Otherwise it's just isolated pioneers.

  3. Indeed, also students are more conservative than primary school pupils - "changes in how courses are run must be extremely well planned and must be fully explained to prospective students to avoid negative evaluations".