what would an evidence base really TEL?

Trinity College Dublin, Jedi Archive. Picture taken by me. No rights reserved by me.

The thing about working in universities, is you have to be very careful about language. I am very lucky to work at University of Edinburgh. Previously I worked at University of Oxford. In both those places I learned that colleagues will, quite rightly, question you and push you to be clear. And so they should.

At Edinburgh I work alongside a group of digital education researchers who have published their thoughts about technology enhanced learning.  It’s a good read. I would encourage you to take a look.

According to Sian, the problem is the words: technology, enhanced and learning.

When we talk about technology in universities we tend to assume we know what we mean by TEL- that there is a shared understanding of the phrase. I’m not sure there is or should be.

Technology could be a range of things, not just computers, not just online,  there might be all kinds of technologies we should investigate which might enhance learning. We should think of performance-enhancing study  drugs and quantified-self technologies which might be used by students to enhance their revision timetable or maximise their studying stamina.

For TEL evidence-based research we seem to focus only on quite a small set of technologies- most of which are not particularly new- and are mostly fairly unremarkable even invisible, to students- websites, handouts, lecture recordings, tests, wikis, blogs. These days these are hard to distinguish from everyday content for most students who routinely read online, watch online and chat online. Do we show our age when we refer to these as innovation?

And then there’s the word ‘enhanced’. Enhanced is not the same as support, or change or disrupt, or transform- all of which might be worth exploring. Enhanced implies that learning is a thing well understood the way it is and that the only thing worth doing with technology is a bit more of that, but with some tweaked enhancement.   If we approach it like that we find studies which show no significant difference, or not much and no moves forward are made. And it’s hard to justify investment.

And learning?  Do we really mean learning, or is it the teaching that’s to be changed or the education? Or the accessibility, or the discoverability, or the administration?

It does strike me that in this country we have made make a rod for our own backs. TEL and VLE are both very UK specific terms. In other countries Balckboard, Moodle et al are  LMS- Learning Management Systems. ‘Virtual Learning Enviroment’ promises a lot.  It sounds like a platform for virtual worlds and immersive environments and beautifully designed, challenging games.

You know your VLE is never going to deliver that. It won’t even compare to the kind of impressive learning environment offered by a splendid library but because of the name, we seek to find the affordances and cognitive gains instead of just admiring the rather elegant ways it manages groups, integrates with the timetabling system and works on a mobile phone.

Sometimes I wonder in whose interest it is for our tech experts to be tamed, domesticated and confined to a term like ‘TEL’? But I suspect we did this to ourselves. We called them VLEs * to convince our senior budget holders to invest and now we beat on, like boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past, searching endlessly for the evidence.

* I blame Aggie. He started it.


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