This blog post is a reflection of two events I went to at the end of October at Keele University and at the UK Council of Graduate Education, both where I presented and spoke to some brilliant people, but it made me think of the well known English phrase ‘rhetoric and reality’. To put it another way, there are words, theories, models, frameworks and then there is the reality, the tools, hints and tips, or to put it another way, what actually works, not what people get paid to talk, write or present about. Don’t get me wrong, I think those theories, models, frameworks etc are what academia is about and has been for decades, but recently, it seems there’s a group of academics, academic developers and higher education management who are going for the shiny new piece of technology before asking the simple question ‘what learning outcome(s) does this solve for me and my students’. 

Make Education Better

Whether we are in Sydney, Surrey or Staffordshire, the job of everyone in education is to make education better (#makeEDUbetter). 

This idea originally comes from Dr Peter Bryant, who worked until last year, as Head of Learning Technology and Innovation at the London School of Economics, but now is Associate Dean of Sydney’s Business School. He’s written about Make Education Better in this blog post,  which as a manifesto for individual and the organisation, offering a potted guide to this cause. 

As the number of academic developers, learning technologists etc grows, and these roles professionalise, so the level of abstraction from the reality and forgetting the lessons from decades of neuroscience and the ways people actually learn (Baume and Popovic, 2016), often undermined by a technology first approach and not a ‘Pedagogy First’ approach (Mason and Rennie, p51, 2008). 

It’s not just me saying this, there’s a growing number of learning technologists or academic developers making the same argument, as Neil Mosley makes in his piece on ‘the divergence between digital and education’. There’s even been articles written such as Walker, R; Jenkins, M. and Voce, J. (2018) called The rhetoric and reality of technology-enhanced learning developments in UK higher education: reflections on recent UCISA research findings (2012–2016). So this begs the simple question, where’s the action to try to #makeEDUbetter from leadership in higher education? 

Maybe this advice isn’t being taken seriously, as Neil Mosley quotes in his blog post from Joshua Kim;s blog post for Inside Higher Education ‘there is radical potential in continuous improvement. If the goal is to advance student learning, then the best method we have is to continuously make small but measurable advances (in pedagogy, in classroom design, in learning tools, in learning analytics, in educator development, etc. etc.) that will ultimately result in big leaps’ Instead, there’s a shiny technology first approach to initiatives, that are like the old phrase ‘the tail wagging the dog’, unstructured, and the lone ranger academic with his faithful friend, tonto, as I have written about previously

Keynote at Keele’s Digital Festival

I was recommended as a keynote by Dr Peter Bryant to Jisc’s Lawrie Phipps, as my University, the University of East London are currently undertaking one of the biggest learning and teaching projects usingf Microsoft Teams in the United Kingdom, in skills modules, and I talked about the opportunities and challenges this has brought. You can watch my keynote below and the slides are also available below.

When I asked the audience of how Microsoft Teams was being used or not in their institutions, for teaching or business use, there were over 100 people from institutions in the room, the replies (from 83) can be categorised into the following (a very large mixed spread): 

  • Patchy 
  • Pilot
  • As a staff communication tool
  • Needs strategic direction to be embedded and used effectively. 
  • Risk-averse central IT department not allowing us to create Teams ourselves 
  • Transforming practice and communication across the organisation  
  • Looking to use it with degree apprenticeships 

One reply which really struck a note for me and sums up the change that does not happen, for many reasons, but especially because there’s a lack of time and learning design, plus thought to changing practice, “Limited L&T use. Where used it has been useful, but culture change is more important than tech change. Many would try and replicate what they do in the VLE rather than change practice”. 

I was quite pleased at the pedagogically focused nature of the event, with academics demonstrating where Teams was working for them but also not saying it was solving all their problems and speaking to HE colleagues was very interesting, as was hearing and reading experiences from the delegates in person and via my brief poll during my presentation.  

UK Council of Graduate Education – Online Pedagogies & Postgraduate Engagement

On the 1st November, I was asked by an ex-colleague of mine Jorge Friere, a Digital Learning Designer at Imperial College London’s Graduate School, to speak on a panel at Friends House on the staff development needs for online postgraduate engagement. 

The day was focused around the ideas in Wenger (1998) Communities of Practice as Dr Janet De Wilde, Head of the Graduate School at Imperial College kicked off the day, that for communities of practice to thrive, they must have joint enterprise; mutual engagement and shared repertoire. 

There was a great session from Jorge Friere, Digital Learning Designer on digital capabilities in postgraduate education: a look at technology-enhanced learning’s role, asking the question that I have asked in this post, that if we have made lots of investment in TEL, but does this growth mean the improvement of academic practice?  He presented this quote “In contrast, there is limited evidence to support the view that TEL is having a major transformational impact on pedagogic practices across the sector, promoting innovation in course delivery (Walker, Jenkins and Voce, 2018). You would ask what your return on investment was for the thousands of pounds of un-strategically spent monies on shiny new podiums, VR equipment and drones to name three technology first initiatives. There is an element of Missing in Action (Learning): evidence of any scholarly approach to teaching and learning with technology in higher education (Kirkwood and Price, 2013). Answers on postcard as to why please… 

On reflecting on Jorge’s presentation and thinking of my experiences, how few conference presentations and journal articles about these new innovations, mention the staff or student teaching or learning or outcomes, let alone show data, quantitative or qualitative of what actually happened in reality of a new room being designed, new platform being introduced or some AI introduced or some wireless collaboration technology being piloted. 

As Baume and Popovic (2016) say in their book, that there are decades of research, that are increasingly being ignored by academic developers and learning technologists, that is why I found the presentation from Leonard Houx, Cass Business School on how you would present information really interesting, not the most glamorous of topics, but it is impactful. 

There’s rhetoric and then there’s reality and for some areas of higher education, we have lost the soul of higher education, the one that cares about how our students learn, the skills they develop and how we teach those skills in the best possible way. A little less conversation, a little more action please (as this Elvis re-mix alludes to!). 

I will leave you with the quote, which I used in my talk at Keele, “Pedagogy first – before selecting your new technology for interacting and/or communicating with the learners, be sure that you fully understand your educational goal.” (Mason and Rennie, p51, 2008). If we don’t take this into consideration when we innovate, then in ten years time students will still report they only get PowerPoint in their VLEs (LSE 2020 report) and potentially badly structured ones too! 

You can find all the presentations from this event here:


Baume, D and Popovic, C (2016). Advancing Practice in Academic Development. 1st Edition. Routledge. London.

Dalziel, J., Conole, G., Wills, S., Walker, S., Bennett, S., Dobozy, E., Cameron, L., Badilescu-Buga, E. and Bower, M., 2016. The Larnaca Declaration on Learning Design. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2016(1), p.7. DOI: 

Kirkwood, A., & Price, L. (2013). Missing: Evidence of a scholarly approach to teaching and learning with technology in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 18 (3), 327-337. 

Walker, R; Jenkins, M. and Voce, J. (2018). The rhetoric and reality of technology enhanced learning developments in UK higher education: Reflections on recent UCISA research findings (2012-2016) 

Wenger, E. (1998): Communities of Practice: learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press