Learning Technologies in Higher Education – Friend or Foe?

by Ian McDonald

Until relatively recentTeaser text on equityly, the main equipment in the average lecture theatre and seminar room was a lectern and/or a blackboard (Race 2007, p.109). Now, however, we are experiencing an exposition of new technologies to aid learning and teaching. Firstly videos and overhead projectors were introduced followed by the now omnipresent PowerPoint presentations and use of YouTube clips. Many Universities are even employing specialist staff to design bespoke learning technologies specifically for their own institution, and BCU is no exception here.

Despite my relative youth I struggle with new technology and tend to ‘catch up’ with rather than ‘champion’ new technologies. This has been the case with several technologies which I now use regularly privately, but was slow to initially embrace, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and at work, such as SharePoint. This undoubtedly comes from my suspicion of ‘change’ and my fairly conservative (small ‘c’) educational background.

PowerPoint presentations have become one of the standard technological tools which lecturers choose to use in the classroom – to the extent that Phil Race’s book The Lecturer’s Toolkit (2007) has eight pages dedicated to explaining how Lecturers can improve their use of PowerPoint. If used well, it can be a great support tool; be it to keep a student’s attention, and to highlight key words, concepts and topics taught or to provide visual material in addition to words to support different learning pathways. For the more advanced users, animations and links to videos via YouTube or the British Pathe archives website provide a more interactive feel to otherwise possibly very dry material. However, all too often standard templates, slides crammed with tiny words or endless quotes and snippets of text provide the perfect background for students checking their phones or at the other extreme provide the perfect distraction and confusion through gimmicks and padding.

So, let’s have a quick look at some of the more recent classroom-based learning technologies. Xtranormal and Birmingham City University’s own Shareville allow lecturers to design and use animations and simulations to aid students’ learning (and their own teaching). Students can watch various scenarios played out for them, with the lecturer then adding further information or leading a discussion afterwards. There are, however, limitations; for example, the characters on Xtranormal appear to have rather ‘wooden’ voices and movements, which could be off-putting for students. Shareville certainly has an advantage in this respect, as its videos contain real people.q1

Despite some shortcomings (be it in the actual software or due to its poor application by the user), there are many advantages to the use of learning technologies in Higher Education. Applying a range of technologies offers variation from the traditional tutor-led lecture style. Learning technologies allow students to experience/practice things which cannot be taught or demonstrated easily in a conventional lecture; for example, playing out various scenarios and testing the effect of different responses. Shareville, for example, is used by BCU’s Faculty of Health to provide ‘hands-on’ practice in a safe environment to prepare future health professionals deal with common as well as very difficult situations.

However, there are also more fundamental disadvantages and limitations with such learning technologies. When technology started to become more prevalent on campus, there was a belief that this would totally transform learning and teaching in Higher Education. The assumption was that learning would happen at the pace required by each individual student through exploration and discovery, with staff taking on more of a mentoring role (Geoghegan 1994, p.1). This has not come to pass quite as some expected, as people often have unrealistic expectations of technology, and are unaware of the financial and time implications (Geoghegan 1994, p.2). As in society, universities show a gradient from rich to cash-strapped and this will affect what technologies can be afforded, upgraded and/or developed, but at the same time students are paying increasingly high tuition fees and, unsurprisingly, their expectations are increasing. Universities are finding themselves in an awkward situation where they have financial constraints but, at the same time, they are enrolling increasingly expectant students.

Also, what about lecturers’ widely different abilities when it comes to using various, let alone the latest, technologies? Does this introduce a ‘new’ inequity in the perceived quality of teaching a student receives, if a member of staff in one institution or in one class is highly skilled and proficient at using the latest technology whilst another member of staff in another institution or in another class is not? Institutions may provide training for staff, but just because two members of staff attend the same course still does not mean they will be equally skilled at using the resource.

The need to use learning technologies in the classroom is made very clear to younger/new lecturers. I have just completed the Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (part of the MA Education course) and the use of technology in, and out of, the classroom featured prominently in the course. The use of learning technologies and the drive for ‘innovation’ has seen universities themselves, and the higher education sector as a whole, reward lecturers who use new technology or use existing technologies well; for example, the Times Higher Education (THE) has awards dedicated to this, such as ‘Outstanding Contribution to Innovation and Technology’ and ‘Outstanding ICT Initiative of the Year’.

If new technologies are to be used in (or out of) the classroom to support teaching and learning, it is imperative that they are available to all and are not ‘exclusive’ in any way. Several of the new technologies which are being introduced to aid study away from the classroom tend to require some form of specialist technical knowledge, in no way linked to the academic knowledge required for study on the course, or specific software on the part of the student. For example, both eBooks and iBooks require a specialist device for them to be accessed – a Kindle in the case of an eBook and an iPod Touch, iPad or iPhone in the case of the iBook. We should be assessing students on their performance on their chosen course, not against their ability to purchase and/or use various pieces of technological kit. For these reasons I have yet to be convinced by the appropriateness of eBooks or iBooks. There are now increasing numbers of people attending University, including many from lower socio-economic groups and they could effectively be reduced to second class students if we started publishing lecture notes, additional notes/readings, videos and other information solely in iBook or eBook formats. This would be a disaster!


Geoghegan, W. (1994) ‘Whatever happened to Instructional Technology’, Paper presented at the 22nd Annual Conference of the International Business Schools Computing Association. International Business Schools Computing Association, Baltimore, 17-20 July. Available at http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/260144/ (Accessed: 3 January 2013).

Race, P. (2007) The Lecturer’s Toolkit. 3rd ed. Abingdon: Routledge Falmer.

About the author:
Ian McDonald is the Research Officer for the Faculty of Technology, Engineering and the Environment at Birmingham City University. Follow him on twitter @IanCMcD

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