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Appendix 2: Background to e-learning developments within HE

There is a huge literature on the background, history and development of educational technology and in particular of e-learning within the HE sector. This appendix is written with a new lecturer in mind, in particular one planning to explore e-learning developments as part of their professional practice training.

A good starting point for understanding current initiatives is the HEFCE strategy for e-learning (HEFCE, 2005): ‘using technology to transform higher education into a more student-focused and flexible system, as part of lifelong learning for all who can benefit’. This had the explicit aim of supporting HE institutions in developing and embedding e-learning. The need for a focus on pedagogy and consequently a new blend of approaches to teaching and learning was emphasised, in particular from being technology-led to enabling independent learning. There then followed the revised strategy (HEFCE, 2009), arguably a bolder and more outward looking approach (Mayes et al., 2009) with the emphasis on enhancing learning and teaching through the use of technology. Importantly, whilst identifyingthesector-wide ‘transformative potential of technology’ this policy also recognised the need for institutions to develop and implement their own and diverse strategies, albeit sharing common themes.

The UCISA 2010 survey (Browne et al., 2010) identifies ‘enhancing quality of learning and teaching’ and ‘meeting students changing expectations’ as the key drivers for considering using technology enhanced learning (TEL) and the availability of supporting staff as the leading factor in determining development. Other perceived benefits include enhancing both staff and student digital literacy, supporting research capacity, developing e-assessment as well as improving retention and recruitment. The survey finds that pre- and post-92 institutions use TEL for about 45% of all modules or units of study. Finally, the top three barriers to TEL development remain the same: lack of time, lack of money and lack of academic staff knowledge.

Throughout the decade the conception of e-learning also broadened with the range of learning technologies employed continually extending to include social networking services, blogs, wikis and Web 2.0 tools; along with supporting the ‘New Millennium Learners’ (Redecker, 2009) in using their own devices.

Pedagogy and e-learning

Research has identified that for some time the primary focus of e-learning tools has been to deliver curriculum content along with course management rather than being driven by pedagogy. The importance of specifying the underlying assumptions about learning to provide a rationale for the technology has since been well argued: ‘A model of e-learning would need to demonstrate on what pedagogic principles the added value of the “e” was operating’ (Mayes and de Freitas, 2004).

Different perspectives on learning typically converge on associative, cognitive and situative: that is learning as activity, learning as understanding and learning as social practice. Most developments within TEL in HE blend all three of these perspectives to some degree.

A split within the e-learning community, between the developers of e-learning tools and researchers into how teachers could use them most effectively, initially impeded the uptake of new innovations but subsequently led to recognition of the need for practitioner-focused resources (Falconer et al., 2007).

An emergent theme within the literature is the focus on learning design: the constructive alignment of theory and practice, in particular through ‘practice models’ of e-learning. These aim to inspire teachers to implement and change practice with a greater reflection on pedagogy and moving from ad hoc to intentional in choice of learning activities. Effective interventions necessitate consultation and collaboration with practitioners along with contextualisation and ownership of educational tools (Beetham, 2008). ‘Thus practice models should be both representations of effective practice, and effective representations of practice’ (Falconer et al., 2007). Initiatives therefore aiming to engage lecturers to become part of a collaborative educational community followed; in particular developing ‘pedagogic planning tools to scaffold the process of learning design’ (San Diego et al., 2008).

Finally another strand within the literature is the shift from practitioners’ to learners’ needs, often encouraged by the recognition of the need for more personalised learning (see the section 3 case study, ‘Learners’ perspectives’, for reflections on this theme).