University of the West of England
The 10th CTI-AFM Annual Conference was held during beautiful spring weather on 8 - 9 April in the historic setting of the Old Ship Hotel in Brighton. There was nothing traditional, however, about the papers that were presented. They constituted a stimulating collection of reports of ongoing research and teaching practices. All-in-all, a fitting set of papers for the last CTI-AFM Conference before the advent of the new Subject Centres that are being planned for next year.
It was to the new Subject Centres that the first speaker first turned his attention. These are intended to combine pedagogy and technology to help practitioners within the subject context. Roger King then went on to describe the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education that will be launched formally in late spring. This followed from the recommendations of the Dearing Report. It will be a UK-wide professional organisation intended to enhance the status of teaching, maintain and improve the quality of teaching and learning in HE and set standards of good professional practice that others in HE might follow.
The remaining papers of the conference also looked to the future, but addressed present organisations and practices in describing research and, particularly, ongoing methodologies. Billed as a conference to bring together academics - novices and experts - interested in harnessing the power of technology to enhance learning, the papers presented this year seemed to offer advice, describe best practice examples (or constructively explain failures) and stimulate thought within the subject area admirably. There appeared to be a newer emphasis upon web technology and how it could be harnessed in the learning process to improve access to information to a wider group of end-users than upon the more familiar IT presentational packages and aids. Many papers concentrted upon web technology and addressed the practical and cultural issues surrounding web-based teaching and learning.
A keynote speech by John Schostak highlighted the subjects of many of the themes that emerged from papers throughout the conference. In particular, he touched upon the contradictions of the availability and use of technology. IT is harnessed to help teachers to teach and learners to learn and it provides something new and extra to enhance and stimulate the learning experience, but confusion can often result when technology is introduced. Using the phrase, ‘information swamp’, he suggested that technology can help to transform information into knowledge for decision making or it can simply add to the swamp and confuse users more. This theme was picked up by a number of papers that demonstrated the use of different teaching packages.
He also emphasised the two aspects of the whole range of issues surrounding cultural concerns; referring to the ‘machine side’ and the ‘human side’ of technology. In considering organisational and infrastructure issues, he discussed the mechanisms, procedures and communications’ infrastructure necessary to put ideas into action as well as the personal, social and cultural practices required.
Again, these were themes that threaded their way through a number of papers. Some presenters spoke of the need for cultural changes that would encourage colleagues to adopt the use of technologies in their course designs and delivery. Others hinted at the need for cultural change when describing courses or teaching support that were championed by individuals or small groups, but might be treated with suspicion, disinterest or indifference by colleagues. Many found that they had to find ways of overcoming academic autonomy when attempting to introduce new shared technology-based resources. Others touched upon the need for cultural changes that would translate the theories represented through technology into practices found in the workplace.
As with so many IT-thought-based conferences in a wide range of subject areas that are held today, speakers returned again and again to this theme of ‘people’ issues rather than to technological issues. There was no dearth of papers describing learning packages and technology-based new teaching, learning and assessment methodologies and organisations at a range of British and overseas institutions, but it was cultural issues that seemed to constantly emerge as the important ones. ‘Cultural change’ appeared to be an umbrella term that covered a wide range of concerns and problems. A whole raft of interesting thoughts (but no firm conclusions) were raised about the ways in which introducing new technologies might effect the processes of teaching and learning and the psychological impact new technologies might have upon the existing roles and relationships between academics and students.
It would appear that academics find themselves as caught up in problems associated with changing each other’s approaches to technology as LIS professional do in changing academics’ perceptions and adoption of new information technologies. Thoughts centred around the building of knowledge through conceptual visions that would require changes in cultural practices and organisational infrastructures. A number of presenters pointed out that much of the technology was, itself, not really new. It was already there. Nor was there any lack of web-based teaching materials. A number of papers, however, referred not only to the difficulty of persuading colleagues to accept and use new technology and new packages, but also to the fact that there was little supporting literature on how technology would effect teaching and learning and the teachers and learners. There was still a pioneering feel about introducing technology into many courses.
As in many of today’s LIS conferences, many speakers seemed convinced of the importance of introducing technology and of bringing about the necessary cultural changes for any such introduction, but failed to fully explain what these cultural changes should be or how they could be brought about. The usual questions of document and system ownership arose as well as issues surrounding the concept of sharing and networking resources and of maintaining and financing systems. The issue of ownership appeared to be a very important one that marked a noticeable difference between a conference arranged for academics than one held for LIS professionals. Systems described tended to have been created and were being championed by individuals or small groups of individuals. Consequently, there was a stronger feeling of personal ownership of materials and/or systems - even where they were shared. Those systems that were the focus of papers were not institutional as with most library-models. At best they were only used by a small group of staff within a single department. This must raise issues of scaleability that were not often addressed at the conference.
Unlike LIS conferences where questions of finance centre more around the issue of who finances a library-led system/development networked throughout an institution, individual academics who had developed new technology-based courses were more concerned about personal recompense. Concerns centred around the lack both of acknowledgement of pioneering work and of the amount of effort and time required to design technology-based courses and information-support. Without adequate recompense system development could rest upon the goodwill and enthusiasm of individual members of staff. This situation could limit developmental work.
Mention was also made of the fact that systems championed by an individual might be the focus of partisan research and that they might result in uneven adoption with cultural dissonance, although one paper did suggest that evidence of cultural change was beginning to appear.
Over and over again the idea of using technology emerged as a means to the end of achieving ‘best practice’, while ‘human resources’ remained the main ‘bottleneck’ to the advancement of this ideal.
Many papers stressed the fact that technology, of itself, does not change teaching styles. And that it does not, necessarily, encourage students to use software. Students do not tend to use different databases voluntarily. The well-rehearsed arguments heard at LIS conferences that there has to be a constant programme of promotion to students and to teaching colleagues to encourage them to use technology was aired along with the problems encountered because different students are more or less willing to use information and communications technology depending upon a whole range of variable factors such as support and availability of PCs within their institution, individual departments and home.
Since the conference was aimed at academics, the emphasis was rightly upon harnessing technology for teaching. For someone from a LIS background, however, there was a disappointing lack of references to systems of information provision despite the occasional obligatory mention of lifelong learning and the future importance of technology to provide access to information in every aspect of life. Too often, papers described isolated incidences of information sharing. Cultural issues centred very much upon sharing, but sharing amongst fellow academics. They did not appear to embrace the more fundamental change of sharing with other professionals such as library and IT support staff. Mention was made of the fact that accountancy is a cross-disciplinary subject area, but not of support services. Without a closer working relationship and sharing with other staff, academics might well present courses in a more exciting format, but they will only be harnessing technology to support existing practices rather than introducing more innovative ones that embrace an integrated mix of tuition and information provision that embeds IT skills.
University of the West of England