Get wired up but not entangled

November 19, 2004

You've succeeded in posting a flattering photo of yourself on the web and there's a whole world of technology waiting. But just watch your step, warns Harriet Swain.

You've worked out how to respond by email to student excuses. You have a flatteringly out-of-date picture of yourself on your university's website.

You can even look up on Amazon the relative sales positions of your book and that of the pushy professor down the corridor. But there must be more to new technology than this.

There is. But before you become a complete geek you are going to have to talk to people. Rhonda Riachi, director of the Association for Learning Technology, says that you should approach colleagues to find out whether any of them has experience they can pass on.

You also need to talk to your librarian to find out what site licences exist for your institution and how to make the most of them. There may be an e-learning committee at the university that could make suggestions about what to do and help with administrative or technical snags. Riachi suggests that relative beginners should sign up for staff training courses on searching the web, and then find out the kind of resources available online - particularly the many that are free or "open source".

The next thing to do is to approach your subject centre. Lawrence Hamburg, senior adviser on e-learning for the Higher Education Academy, says a history lecturer and engineer are likely to use information technology very differently. A subject centre will give lecturers access to resources and networks of colleagues that are specific to their subject area. The Higher Education Academy is linking up with the Joint Information Systems Committee to develop methods for disseminating good practice across subjects.

"Avoid thinking you have to do everything yourself," Riachi says. "There may be 16 different solutions to what you are looking for, but you should be able to get help with at least one that is right for you."

Riachi also warns against "becoming too enthusiastic. Try to do things that are not difficult for you to set up or for students to use," she says.

Once you have done a bit of homework you will find a wealth of research and teaching resources, such as Early English Books Online - launched by Jisc in October - which makes almost every book in the English language published between 1473 and 1700 available free to every college and university in the country. Or the Education Image Library - 50,000 images made available from the Hulton Getty archive.

One of the most effective uses of new technology in terms of student learning is a discussion forum or virtual learning environment. Mark Russell, the Times Higher 's e-tutor of the year for 2003, increased pass rates by 25 per cent through use of a virtual learning environment in his engineering class at Hertfordshire University. Such environments not only provide lecture notes, PowerPoint presentations and supplementary materials around the clock but can also involve methods for students to ask questions and discuss one another's views.

Russell says he aimed to keep the virtual learning environment he set up highly active to encourage students to keep coming back and to engage with the subject beyond the weekly lecture and tutorial sessions. He also used it to develop a collaborative set of notes capturing what students felt to be the most important features of a lecture. A virtual learning environment has to be used carefully, however. "Using it as a dumping ground for course notes is not likely to be the best use," he says.

Christine Steeples, lecturer in educational research at Lancaster University, warns that new technology has its limitations. "There are certain aspects of what we do in teaching in higher education that need face-to-face contact," she says. "This is offering another tool for supporting learning. There will be opportunities where it is appropriate and others where it is not."

Paul Brett, chair of the Heads of E-Learning Forum for UK Universities, advises beginning a module with a face-to-face session to establish how adept students are at using technology. This means that those who are less confident can be helped. It is also an opportunity to emphasise to students the importance of checking emails and to explain what resources are available to them.

It may also be the time to warn them about some of the dangers of e-learning. Philip Pothen, spokesman for Jisc, says that while students are usually more adept at using the web than lecturers, they often receive too little help in filtering out the good online resources from the bad. "In the past, a library or campus provided a 'walled garden' within which all available resources had been quality checked by specialists, whether academics or librarians," he says. "The web and search engines like Google, which don't account for quality of resource, mean this is no longer the case."

Pothen points academics in the direction of the Resource Discovery Network, which provides a search engine for only those online resources that have passed a set of quality criteria. It also offers online tutorials in about 60 subjects, taking students through the available online resources and how to use them.

Plagiarism is another potential danger. Anyone wanting information about copyright issues would do well to consult Jisc's plagiarism service and its technical advisory service for images.

According to Riachi, while you need to be aware of the kind of services generally available to academics and institutions online, it is not necessary to upgrade your own software continually. You should, however, ensure that whatever you have is reusable and can operate on different platforms so that nobody is excluded. Steeples, meanwhile, stresses that it is important to think about how technologies may develop. She is researching how video clips could be used to give demonstrations to students online. While problems with bandwidths makes this tricky now, it will not be long before wielding a webcam becomes yet another aspect of new technology you will need to master.

Further information

Association for Learning Technology, An Introduction to Learning Technology within Tertiary Education in the UK , edited by Jane Seale and Merce Rius-Riu, published by the Association for Learning Technology, Oxford Brookes University, 2001


The Resource Discovery Network:

Higher Education Academy:


Find out about the resources available in your university and your subject area

Don't be overambitious

Use e-learning to support face-to-face contact rather than to replace it

Use virtual learning environments to make students interactive rather than simply as dumping grounds for course notes

Talk to the experts

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