Thursday, 20 February 2014

On 'TEL' & Symantics...

My time in academia has featured many nitty gritty conversations about symantics; terminology; choosing appropriate words, etc.

In honesty, part of me thinks it's all a bit of nonsense and we should just get on with stuff rather than wasting time. The other side of me recognises that actually, the words we use are important because they portray meanings to different people, and as such, engagement can rely on this understanding.

A few years back, the term 'Technology Enhanced Learning' came into power after HEFCE (2009) suggested its predecessor ‘e-learning’ can "sometimes be too narrowly defined to describe fully the widespread use of learning technology in institutions".

Is 'Technology Enhanced Learning' any different?

For as much as we love the innovation taking place, I believe academic managers are more interested in the implementations that address significant (e.g. Faculty-wide) processes and problems, as I said when attempting to debunk the Horizon reports and provide a realistic view of the coming years in TEL.

With this in mind, things like addressing minimum standards doesn't really fit into the TEL terminology - it's not really 'enhancing learning' per sé. The same could arguably be said for lecture capture - these, two of the biggest areas of discussion across UK HE EdTech at the moment! Even when we think particular innovations do fit into the term TEL, does the technology actually enhance learning? Or is it the processes i.e. reflection, communication, collaboration; that are facilitated by technology?

<Edited in>
@Lawrie was kind enough to share the reflections from the 52Group, which quotes Douglas Adams:

"We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works"

Their thoughts in preparing for the postdigital era suggest that, just as the Digital Clock is now seen simply as a clock, we are coming to an era whereby 'learning' is simply seen as learning. I've skimmed the short document but would recommend you have a look for yourself, but does the focus on technology (like separate TEL strategies, etc) actually hinder the implementation?
< / Edited>

So what do you think? Does it matter? Shall we just get on with it? Do we need to rethink the terminology we use yet again? I've come across various documents from other HEIs that seem to avoid TEL in favour of other terms....


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  1. Hi Peter -hope this gets through this time. It's an age old problem isn't it? I've struggled and continue to struggle with terminology in my professional life. Like you and Lawrie's paper I just want "stuff that works" and "stuff" is one of my favourite and most used words when I am talking about a range of "things" relating to technology and education. Unfortunately if I got to senior management and say I was some more "stuff" they won't take me seriously. However if I ask for money to support the development of digital infrastructure, I might be taken more seriously. As with everything it comes down to context. We need language and common understandings (or mis-understandings!) and shorthands, but we need to be mindful of where and when we use certain jargon. As ever context is everything.


    1. Thanks Sheila.
      I think I often have mixed views on things like this. I do 'get' the post digital argument in that learning is learning, enabled by tech or not. I wonder if we need the terminology for added emphasis, as you say, in order to get senior management on board.
      We were discussing whether we should have a separate eLearning strategy at least 5 years ago, but alas many HEIs still do. So perhaps the post digital era isn't quite here yet, which kind of links back to my TEL Team the other day - despite the potential and innovation, we're still 'struggling' with some basic issues and concepts, and we need to emphasise these to SMT!

  2. Hi Peter
    Just to add to the confusion - have you seen the HEA's recent publication from the Flexible Pedagogies project?

    The report has the title 'Technology-Enhanced Learning', but it also uses the term 'e-learning', extensively, along with other terms like blended learning, flexible learning and so on.

    We do tend to get bogged down with jargon, but if we don't know what these terms mean, how can our students be expected to?

    1. Hi Tony,

      Thanks for that. Yes I've previously skimmed the flexible pedagogies publication and agree RE the terminology used. The terms are increasingly used interchangeably, which might just be more confusing.

      Despite my partial agreement to the post digital view, I also agree with you in that we, and our students, need to understand the terms. And furthermore, that the terms need to do what they say on the tin (which I think is part of the wider problem). So whilst there are so many initiatives that aren't necessarily 'enhancing learning' (like minimum standards), a more suitable term should cover all aspects.
      I often use the term 'supporting and enhancing learning, teaching, assessment, and the overall student experience', which is more of a catch-all but it's a bit wordy and unlikely to catch on.... SELTASE :-)
      Any suggestions?

  3. I have a horrible feeling I was a part of the team that approved "TEL". It was a chap called Alan Palmer who was at HEFCE who insisted on it in the strategy.

    But "Student Experience" is the big term at the moment in policy/strategy circles. No matter how many times I tell people that the best way to improve Student Experience is to employ good staff, and adjust salary/T&Cs so they actually stay for long enough to understand the institution - sadly I think Student Experience will die off as more wags abbreviate it to "SEx" (ha bloody ha)

    Mind you, I'm old enough (just) to remember the great "Learning & Teaching"/"Teaching & Learning" schism of '01. Never changes.

    1. Ha. Cheers David. Multi-lol comment!
      Yes I remember the Learning & Teaching; Teaching & Learning debate when I was at Edge Hill. We spent so long in a validation meeting discussing the words in the new PGCert in (L&T or T&L) in HE. Now I'm feeling old :-(