Technology-enhanced learning developments across UK higher education (2012-2016) – new UCISA research article

A new research article by UCISA’s Digital Education Group, co-authored by City’s Head of Educational Technology, Julie Voce, has just been published on technology enhanced learning developments across the UK higher sector.

The rhetoric and reality of technology-enhanced learning in UK HE’ reviews the investment in TEL tools and services that UK higher education institutions have made over recent years (2012-2016), and considers the impact that this had on teaching and learning practices, updating the picture presented in an earlier article for the period up until 2012.

By drawing on evidence from the biennial UCISA surveys and case study reports (UCISA 2012, 2014 & 2016) as well as other sector publications, the article seeks to explore the reality of TEL developments across the sector –  questioning the extent to which institutional investment in TEL services is leading to transformational changes in learning and teaching practices.

Lofty claims have been made for the role of technology in enhancing the student experience. Note the UK Higher Education Academy (HEA)’s focus on the role of technology to act as an ‘enabler to support student choice and control over the pace, place and mode of course delivery’ (Hammersley, Tallantyre & Le Cornu, 2013). This vision for the role of technology has also been reflected in recent institutional strategic statements such as the University of Surrey’s digital learning strategy (2016), which highlights the potential of digital learning environments to deliver  control and responsibility of development to the individual learner.

A powerful vendor lobby has also been quick to extol the benefits of technology and to set out the future direction of TEL developments for the higher education sector. The most recent Blackboard Inc. white paper is typical of this genre– making the case for an increased role for mobile technology in supporting ‘on demand’ learning over the coming years, whilst also shining a light on Web 3.0 and the future role of artificial intelligence in supporting personalised learning trajectories (Blackboard, 2017).

It is questionable though how much the rhetoric and promise of technology enhanced learning is grounded in the reality of day-to-day teaching practice within universities. Are we achieving the vision?  In updating the picture for the period 2012-2016, the UCISA evidence shows that on one level, there has been significant progress with the mainstreaming of digital services across university campuses. Central provision of TEL tools has increased in all areas of student communication and collaboration with the exception of social networking tools, extending way beyond the limited number of core technologies (between four and seven tools) that were reported to be managed by UK HE institutions in our earlier case study research (UCISA, 2012).

This has been particularly noticeable in the domain of course management and assessment tools employed to support the automated marking of tests and electronic submission of assignments. (See Key messages from the 2016 UCISA TEL Survey for a discussion on these developments).

In recent years we have also seen increased investment in student-facing digital services such as lecture recording systems, no doubt influenced by a ‘consumer aware’ student lobby, with student representatives exercising a greater voice on the scope and quality of services that universities should be providing for them (e.g. Nouse, 2015). This has been accompanied by strong ‘top down’ support from senior managers for the mainstreaming of their adoption by academic staff in support of the learner. This has revived discussions over how consistency in the way that technology is used across taught programmes to support the student experience can be best achieved – with debate on the merits of threshold or minimum standards for technology adoption very much in vogue (see UCISA DEG’s recent tweet chat on VLE minimum standards).

Yet progress to date in implementing and mainstreaming student-centred approaches through the use of technology has been slow.  The research by UCISA on institutional technology adoption for learning and teaching across the UK HE sector has revealed the strong institutional focus on supplementary uses of the web to support module delivery, based on the provision of electronic copies of lecture notes and content resources to students (i.e. content delivery). This is a distance away from the promotion of creative uses of technology which support student-controlled online learning activities, engaging learners and offering challenge to their personal study, as advocated by the HEA and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). (See Rebooting learning for the digital age: What next for technology enhanced higher education? for HEPI’s take on the direction that universities should be taking in their adoption and mainstreaming of TEL services in support of the learner.)

The UCISA article explores the reasons behind this current state of affairs – and the necessary factors to bring about change in pedagogic practice, looking beyond investment in TEL infrastructure and ‘top down’ policy directives on technology adoption to consider the incentives, enabling factors and crucially the make-up of institutional and local academic cultures which may drive academic engagement with digital tools and services – moving beyond the baseline of technology usage towards the development of creative and student-centred pedagogic practices with technology. In this respect the cultural dimension appears critical to academic engagement – touching on the incentives, academic freedoms and the pedagogic flexibility that staff enjoy to embrace new practices, experiment and develop their digital craft.

The article is available here:  The rhetoric and reality of technology-enhanced learning developments in UK higher education: reflections on recent UCISA research findings (2012-2016)  Interactive Learning Environment, December 2017.

Find out more about UCISA’s longitudinal research on technology enhanced learning.

The next UCISA Survey will be released to UK higher education institutions in January 2018 to complete, with survey findings released in September of this year. Julie Voce will be co-ordinating City’s response to the survey. If you would like to be involved, please contact her at

Post originally written by Dr Richard Walker, E-Learning Development Team Manager, University of York for the University of York E-learning Blog.

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