I am a big fan of digital education. In my previous job as a senior lecturer, after several years of repeatedly teaching the same topics for many years, I had honed a bank of vignettes to explain various concepts to students in a way that I believed captured their essence and helped them to stick in people’s brains. But once perfected, the task of having to repeat the same thing over and over again becomes irksome, especially when you know there are technological tools perfectly suited to the job of digitally capturing your delivery and effortlessly scaling it up to an almost unlimited audience. In the department of Multidisciplinary Engineering Education, where teaching at scale is the day job, we routinely rely on an array of digital tools to make our delivery effective and efficient.
The pandemic has thrust digital education squarely into the limelight and The University of Sheffield is more strategically considering their approach to how it is used. My concern with this newly developed excitement about this area is that almost any activity involving a student and a computer, in pretty much any context, now falls under the umbrella term of “digital education”. The problem with conflating many different facets of digital education, which all have their own objectives and constraints, under the same banner is that it creates barriers to finding commonality in approaches to share best practice and eliminate instances of reinventing the wheel. To my mind, there are (at least, I’d be interested to discuss further) three distinct branches of digital education.
- The first is the use of digital tools to serve teaching to students. These are tools that are on the interface between the student and the teachers, such as virtual learning environments.
- The second is the use of tools to administer the teaching process, such as student record systems or attendance monitoring. These tools are on the interface between the students or teachers and the institution. As these tools have a sufficiently different objective in what they are trying to achieve, I feel they deserve to be separated out as a distinct branch of digital education.
- The third is the teaching of digital skills. Unlike the previous two, this isn’t about the use of digital tools to achieve a job, but the teaching of concepts about the operation of hardware/software and creation of digital content.
This particular order for the branches of digital education is more or less the order in which I would place my level of excitement that I have for each of them. In the first category there are mature technologies to achieve the bulk of what academics need in order to deliver teaching. There are some incremental gains to be had within this space but it is unlikely there will be a revolutionary change any time soon. Some exciting opportunities exist in the world of remote access to laboratory teaching and MEE is part of the vanguard, but this is a niche subject area.
There is, for me at least, some excitement about the second branch. From an educators point of view the administration of teaching is not particularly interesting and often something that needs to be done for auditing purposes, but does not directly contribute to the learning experience. That being said, anything that can be done to reduce the time and intellectual effort required to perform administrative duties frees up those resources for the teacher to invest in the more important job of designing and delivering education. So from an efficiency perspective, and as an engineer I am delighted by the elegance of efficient systems that solve problems, I feel there are some ripe opportunities in this second branch of digital education.
The third branch is about teaching computational concepts and this is the one that excites me the most, for lots of reasons. Pockets of this type of teaching exist in different contexts across our institution providing an opportunity for coalescing delivery with some high quality, centrally supported resources. There is also the delicious circularity of delivering the third branch of digital education using the first and second branch. But it is the universally applicable requirement for all graduates to have a robust foundation in understanding how computers work and a mindset that allows them to be exploited to achieve their creative visions that, for me, makes this the most exciting branch. And the knowledge and experience of computers that students bring with them when they arrive is incredibly varied.
I grew up at a time when computers were just becoming widespread enough for each school to have a few and the curriculum was aware enough of their potential to be important in the future, but most teachers didn’t have, or want to have, any experience of using them. A few people, including myself, had a simple home PC running a command line based DOS or, if you were rich, RISC OS with a fancy graphical interface running on an Acorn. Within a generation the use of computer hardware and digital systems has changed from the preserve of industry experts and knowledge hobbyists to an indispensable part of virtually every aspect of people’s lives. It is now unthinkable that an employee in almost any capacity wouldn’t be able to use the basic functions on a computer or mobile device.
One detrimental aspect to this rapid advancement in the utilization of digital systems is that they have been optimised to the point that users do not necessarily need to know how they work in order to achieve tasks. For my generation and those before me, the barrier to entry for early adopters was significant, as without at least a modicum of understanding about how computers worked you were unable to achieve even simple tasks. There was a distinction between people who knew how to use computers and those who didn’t, and the former were often called for tech support by the latter. Nowadays, with almost no comprehension of the complexity required to realize such a technically demanding challenge, even tiny children are able to operate an iPad (other tablet computers are available) to navigate to their favourite TV shows on demand. There is still a spectrum of knowledge of the underpinning concepts of how computers operate within the current generation, but now there is also a much more widespread confidence held by people to simply use the computer as a familiar tool. My worry is that this confidence is conflated with expertise, especially amongst an older generation that may not be able to tell the difference.
I’ve noticed this trend during my time in higher education. Students are increasingly able to use a computer to perform tasks with limited understanding about fundamentally what it is doing to achieve the outcome. Why is that a problem? I’m a terrible cook, but I’m able to feed myself and my family by blindly following a recipe. Likewise, learning to use a piece of software can get you to a predetermined outcome. Given the ubiquity of computers previously discussed and the pivotal role they do and will play in people's careers, my ambition is to raise the expectation for all students to possess a computational mindset. Graduates should be able to go beyond following a recipe or reaching predetermined outcomes, but aspire to create and innovate, identify opportunities and constraints and understand how and why things don’t work so that problems can be solved. When it comes to digital, students should be the master chefs, not the recipe followers. And I don’t think there is any field of study where these ideas and skills would not be relevant.