Universities are complex organisations. Whilst this may be stating the obvious, it is important to understand the variations both between universities and within them. People most often use the term university to mean an institution with a definite identity and geographical location; asked to summarise what ‘Oxford University’ or ‘Liverpool University’ represent, most people with experience of higher education would be able to give a detailed answer summarising what they know about these institutions.

Reivo is in business to support innovation in organisations by driving the adoption of response technology, and we spend a lot of time working with universities because response technology has been adopted enthusiastically in the sector. But the concept of the university as a homogenous organisation is not particularly useful, as the differences between departments and faculties can be striking and each subject or discipline has a distinct approach to teaching and learning and a particular way teaching is organised. Any attempts to innovate or change teaching and learning methods which ignore these teaching cultures are ill advised. The pedagogical identities of subjects are complex and are built out of the particular demands of the discipline and importantly the traditions of teaching and learning which have been in place for many years. A recent article (Matthews 2014) argued that despite predictions of a digital avalanche sweeping across universities, the traditions of universities could be upheld and predictions of the demise of the local university and its replacement by global super universities are unfounded. It seems that universities, whilst often embracing change, are simultaneously quite resistant to it as well. This is the paradox which you need to confront when working with a university.

At Reivo we have found out, through years of work in universities, that new or innovative approaches to teaching and learning need to be implemented with a sensitivity to the existing pedagogies of the subject. An example may help here. Some subjects have a long tradition of multiple-choice questions (MCQs): Medicine for instance has used MCQs for many years to test the skills of trainee doctors. They can of course test the recall of important information and facts which are important for medical practitioners. Nobody would be assured if their GP admitted to having forgotten some key facts about an illness during a consultation or the name of the most suitable medicine to prescribe. But MQCs can also test reasoning skills and well constructed questions can require the students to think with incredible subtlety and nuance about the content they have learned.

By way of contrast, a subject such as English Literature has little or no tradition of MCQs. But response technology could be of use in teaching English Literature to students, not to force the recall of facts which would trivialise both the subject and the technology,, but rather to ask large lecture groups their opinions on key textual issues. Is Hamlet genuinely mad or feigning madness to carry out his plan for revenge? Snapshots of group opinion on questions such as these act as a springboard to more complex and nuanced discussions. The questions are a kind of trojan horse smuggled into the students’ heads to get them to engage deeply with the content. Lectures where the students could send responses to the lecturer would be considerably more interactive and interesting than ones delivered with slides alone, and the lecturer would be able to get some insights in the group opinion of key issues and vary their content accordingly. So both Medicine and English Literature could benefit from response technology, but because there is no tradition of student response systems in English Literature the introduction of the technology would need a very different approach to that of the implementation for a medical school.

At Reivo we have spent a lot of time working with universities to get response technology adopted as an important part of the teaching and learning strategy for a department or faculty. During this time we have learned the importance of paying close attention to the particular culture and pedagogical style of the department. Sometimes we have seen ambitious plans for technology adoption which despite the best intentions of the people championing them, have fallen a little flat and not worked nearly as well as planned. At a recent event we spoke to members of the Learning and Teaching Spaces Managers Group (LTSMG) who have operational oversight of the teaching rooms in many UK universities (LTSMG 2014). The LTSMG members confirmed that many technological innovations, with response technology being one of them, are still in the early ages of adoption and these systems have yet to have become embedded deeply enough for major changes to teaching and learning to take place. The reasons for this situation are very complex, and many of them can only be found by examining closely the culture of the particular faculty or department which is the approach we advocated earlier in this piece.

But perhaps there are answers which apply across the board here. Perhaps attempts to do a ‘big bang’ introduction of new technology are doomed to failure in universities. The technology may end up acting something like a cuckoo and unceremoniously oust pedagogy from the nest. What is needed instead is an approach where the pedagogy for the new technology tools can develop alongside their implementation. This would mean a much more incremental and staged approach. In this model of innovation, each step of adoption is taken slowly and carefully, and the culture of the subject and its unique approaches to teaching and learning are therefore respected and not disrupted too much by the technology. Developing new pedagogies takes a great deal of time and intellectual effort, not to mention time for testing with student groups; perhaps the technology has to wait for this process.

References

LTSMG (2014) Providing Teaching Room Services –Good Practice and Standards. [online] Available at: http://www.ltsmg.org.uk/FinalV42.htm [accessed 28th Apr. 2014]

Matthews, D. (2014). Sector traditions can survive ‘digital avalanche’. [online] Times Higher Education. Available at: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/sector-traditions-can-survive-digital-avalanche/2012864.article [Accessed 29 Apr. 2014]