Does Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) actually enhance learning?

A few weeks ago, someone posted the following request to the ALT Mailing list that I am on:

‘…who on the list could point me to evidence of TEL enhancing learning/teaching.’

Women using a laptop, with chalkboard behindThe request kick started a very good debate and discussion about the weaknesses of research in this area, the merits of learning technology, and various other asides, and without taking this blog post down the same direction as the discussion, I want to focus purely on the wording used, and its strategic significance.

The term TEL (Technology Enhanced Learning) has a clue in it’s name – in that it is where the use of technology has enhanced learning – and therefore the simple answer to the title of this blog post is ‘Yes – TEL, enhances learning’. The problem is that people use the term TEL, to describe any use of technology within education – not just the uses that enhance the learning. People that are anti progress in this area, often cite examples of negative impacts of using technology: ‘I used the interactive whiteboard, but it wasn’t calibrated, so nothing worked, I would have been better off with a whiteboard and pens’, ‘I uploaded my PowerPoints to the VLE, but no students accessed them’ etc. But these are not examples of Technology Enhanced Learning, these are simply examples of bad learning (or bad teaching if being technically correct).

Some may accuse me of getting hung up on simple semantics, or even being flippant here, but I can assure you that this post is written in up-most sincerity, and is an issue that I feel very strongly about. If we are going to use the term TEL – then we have to be prepared to differentiate the difference between good use and bad use. Yes there is a retort that ‘how can one make the judgement without empirical evidence based on academic research’ – but at the simplest level, if a tutor has used technology, and they know that it hasn’t improved the learning experience, then it wasn’t TEL – it doesn’t require research to determine that. Yes there is another possible scenario, where they think the use of technology has enhanced the learning, but in fact it hasn’t, and this is where research does come in – but the research has to avoid getting itself warped by only looking at TEL – instead it has to look at all uses of technology.

There are two main morals to this story:

  1. If organisations are going to use the term TEL as part of their strategies, objectives, etc. are they somehow able to differentiate the genuine TEL from just bad practice?
  2. If people are going to research what evidence there is that technology enhances learning/teaching – then they have to look at the wider use of technology, not just the ‘Enhancing’ use.

As usual, I expect my blog post to upset or unease a few people, but I think there is value in posts like this, which if nothing else, will make people think a little bit about the language used, and its significance.

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The 4 stage model for use of a VLE

A major part of my work at the moment, is working with and around VLEs, either by creating content and activities, or providing training to teachers or learning technologists in the effective use of the VLE. As part of my work in this area, I have identified that there are different steps to go through for the effective use of a VLE, which I have simplified into the following diagram, and which (I think) has huge significance strategically for organisations that are trying to get teachers in particular to make better (or at least more) use of the VLE.
Set of steps, which are labelled from bottom to top as; Managing, Designing, Building, RepurposingThe 4 steps are:

1: Managing

Many of the clients that I work for, hire me to design and create the various activities that form the backbone of a course on a VLE. The teachers then become skilled at managing these activities – e.g. pointing the students to quizzes at the appropriate times, moderating and encouraging forum based activities, providing constructive feedback for formative assessment activities etc. These teachers in the main are not involved in the design process, and certainly not the building/creating process.

2: Designing

Once a teacher has worked with and managed activities that has been created by someone else, they start to understand how such activities work, what the important ingredients are, and why and when the activities are used. They can then start to design new activities – this may be sketching out the ideas or concepts on paper, it may be creating source information in Word, PowerPoint or Excel – the information then goes to a learning technologist who turns their ideas and content into the actual activity.

3: Building

The third step is the actual building or creating of the activities, i.e. using the VLE tools to actually create the books, quizzes, assignments, forums etc. from this content.

4: Repurposing

Once someone has become proficient at building activities, they can then start to repurpose existing content, and hand in hand with this, build content in a way that makes it easy to repurpose in the future (either by them or someone else).

Some organisations have a centralised learning technology team, which is great, as they can help teachers gradually work their way up through the steps. When a teacher is new to this area of work, the learning technology team can do the building for them, allowing the teacher to concentrate on managing and designing. Then as the teacher becomes more proficient, they may start to do some or all of the building, and later repurposing.

However, there are many organisations out there that don’t have such a support mechanism, or the team is too small to be able to effectively meet all the building and repurposing needs of the organisation, and this then forces steps 3 and 4 onto the teaching staff, often without them having worked through steps 1 and 2.

I don’t have a magical answer to this problem, as money is tight, and organisations cannot just create large support teams out of nowhere, but if we think about this 4 step model, and identify the necessity for teaching staff to work their way up it, it is possible to rethink a little about how we do things. I have worked with some organisations recently where I have been asked to come in and run training, where I have had a few hours to try and get teachers jumping straight into step 3, and without any central support for the staff once I leave at the end of the day. This is always going to be tough for those staff. What would be really good is, if there is a mechanism where staff can manage some existing content first, then design some basic activities which someone else creates for them, and then they receive the training in how to build/create content etc.

Within FE and HE at the moment, there are huge pushes to get people using learning technology more (and in many cases the VLE)  – and what is very noticeable is the very different approaches that organisations offer in the way of support, and more significantly the different levels of understanding from the decision makers in these organisations.

The importance of Leadership vs Management in FE when implementing #FELTAG

FELTAG (Further Education Learning Technology Action Group) has been around now for about three years, and in some areas there has been significant progress, in other areas the progress has been slower. One thing that has become apparent to me in my travels around the country and numerous organisations, is the ‘elephant in the room’ that is recognising the difference between leadership and management.

Leadership is about have vision, ideas and long term objectives; then inspiring people to follow those visions and ideas. A good leader will (usually) be an inspirational speaker/presenter, will be someone that is prepared to challenge the norm, and will seek new ways to achieve the goals they have set.

Management is about making sure that steps required to realise the vision and objectives are followed correctly. A good manager is someone that is organised, can break big problems down into more manageable steps, follows and applies protocols, and makes sure that things get done.

Image of a duck leading other ducks.

A leader, and many managers

So the skills and personality requirements of the two are completely different to each other – and herein lies the problem. Further Education in the UK is not very good at separating the two out. Quite often the principal (or equivalent) in an organisation, will be a ‘leader’ – but they will be supported by a SLT (Senior Leader Team) made up of managers. We then get managers making leadership decisions or leaders trying to manage projects – neither of which working well, due to the wrong personality types doing the wrong things. In larger organisations such as universities, or in the private sector – it is much clearer that some people are employed as leaders and some are employed as managers – but that clarity is lacked in FE, where the terms leadership and management are often used interchangeably to describe the same people.

From my perspective, I am often brought into organisations to run staff development in the area of blended learning. I always try to identify the organisations position, and then deliver a bespoke session based on this. Quite often the SLT has identified some totally arbitrary objective for all teaching teams e.g. they have to make 20% of their provision online. There is often no consideration of what that actually means, or why they are doing it, or what is in it for the teachers (or students). Sometimes it is obvious, that there isn’t a clear understanding of what the SLT want, which is problematic. In other situations, the SLT are clear what they want (or they think they are clear), but they haven’t articulated this down to the team leaders and teaching staff who have to implement this.

One of the things that I try to ascertain when working with clients, is ‘which model(s) of blended learning are you working towards?’, the response often being ‘blah blah 20% online blah blah’. There are many different models in which blended learning can be applied, and to be successful, the starting point for any organisation has to be identifying which model(s) are to be used for which situations (and a one size fits all/none approach isn’t a good model) – each subject area, and different courses within that subject area will have different ‘best’ models that they could use, but sadly I am often running training sessions for teachers, where they don’t know what model they are working towards, which makes the chances of success very remote.

And so back to the title of this post. I cannot pretend that I have a magic answer to this situation, but if there is a recognition that there is a difference between leadership and management – and the leaders do the leading and managers do the managing, then this is certainly a step forwards. From a blended learning perspective – the key is that the leaders have a clear long term vision for the organisation that they articulate well, and the managers have the autonomy and confidence to identify and implement the different models of blended learning in the teams that they support.

On the 6th December 2016, I am running a session titled ‘Effective development and management of blended learning‘ at EMFEC in Nottingham. A large part of the session will be looking at some of the different models of blended learning, and how the development of these can be strategically managed by an organisation.

How to display the sheet name in a cell in an Excel spreadsheet

I use Excel a lot, not just for crunching numbers, but for creating teaching resources, lesson planning, managing my accounts and invoices and various other uses. One feature that I often use, is the ability to have the sheet name appearing inside a cell in the spreadsheet – so for example with my invoices – I rename the sheet name with the invoice number, this then updates the invoice within the sheet.

To do this I use the following formula below.

This may seem a complex formula, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t fully understand it (I don’t), you just need to copy and paste this into a cell in the spreadsheet, and the sheet name will appear. If you change the sheet name, the cell will change accordingly.

The only caveat is, that the workbook has to have been saved at some point for this to work – so if you do this with a new workbook, it won’t work until it has been saved.

This technique is unique to Microsoft Excel, it doesn’t work with other spreadsheet tools such as Open office, Google sheets or Apple’s Numbers.

#FELTAG – buying or not buying resources conclusion

This is the 4th and last post in a series looking at the issue of should we buy off the shelf resources or produce resources in house. The previous posts have been:

  1. #FELTAG – to buy or not buy resources?
  2. #FELTAG – Considerations when buying off the shelf resources
  3. #FELTAG – Considerations if not buying off the shelf resources

My intention in this series is to provide the decision makers in organisations with ideas and considerations to help them make an informed decision in this area of work – a decision that is not easy or straight forward, yet the consequences of making the wrong decision are huge.

Every organisation is different, so there certainly isn’t a one size fits all answer. What is right for one, will be totally inappropriate for another, and when a decision is made it doesn’t have to be a blanket whole organisation decision, It may be that for certain teams it is better to produce resources in house; because they have the skill to do so, and the quality of the commercial options in that area isn’t great. Then other teams, may choose to buy all or some of their resources in.

It also isn’t necessary to buy all resources from the same provider – yes they may give you a huge discount for buying a full suite of resources across all subjects, and yes it would be easily technically and managerially to deal with one set rather than lots of sets – but if the resources for certain subjects within the suite aren’t good enough, then they either won’t be used, or will be used badly.

It may also be necessary to change tactic part way through, e.g. you may choose to produce resources in house for one particular course, but part way through you realise it is just too difficult and isn’t working, and you decide to buy in. Or you may choose to buy resources in – but once you have done so, you realise that you could do a better job in house, so you start to develop your own – which you then phase in as the bought ones become obsolete (e.g. at the end of the year on an annual subscription).

It is also imperative to shop around – don’t just jump straight into the ones that are endorsed by the awarding body – especially as some of the awarding bodies are also publishing companies – their endorsement is not always a sign of their real value and quality.

Whatever decisions are made – many factors have to be balanced as follows:

  • Financial – buying in and producing in house both cost money.
  • Quality – buying off the shelf, on the surface should be higher quality as far as resources go – but doesn’t mean the overall quality of the teaching and learning will be higher (just like buying really expensive glossy books, does not substitute quality teaching).
  • Time – Buying in is certainly the quicker option, but if the resources aren’t appropriate or don’t fit the organisations systems, learning how to use them effectively may take additional time.
  • CPD – producing resources in house, becomes part of the CPD process, so brings an additional benefit that you don’t get from buying in.
  • There is a lot out there for free – there is a huge amount of freely available materials and assets that can be used. So in some areas, buying off the shelf resources is relatively expensive, as you could easily produce something similar in house very cheaply. In other areas where there is less freely available content, buying resources is better value pound for pound.

Whatever choice is made – it mustn’t be rushed, it has to be balanced, and all relevant parties need to be involved in the decision making process. If the right decisions are made, it is possible to provide a really high quality and cost effective learning experience.

Image of a pair of balance scales


Whereas I welcome comments on my blog posts, please don’t use this blog post as a way to either promote or criticise any particular companies or products. Any such comments I will delete.

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#FELTAG – Considerations if not buying off the shelf resources

This is the 3rd post in a series on “FELTAG – To buy or not to buy resources“. In my last post, I looked at the advantages and disadvantages of buying off the shelf resources. In this post we will look at the advantages and disadvantages of not buying.

From a simplistic perspective, not buying resources is an easy option, as management can just ask teachers to do the extra work in their own time, at no extra cost to the organisation. Although this may seem a simple and convenient solution in this financially difficult time – the result will be low quality teaching and learning, teachers being off work ill, and many good teachers leaving the profession – none of which are good for the organisation long term.

Image of teachers creating resources

Teachers creating resources

If teachers are being expected to create new content, then some time or financial reward for them will need to be found for this to be truly successful – so we shouldn’t look at the ‘Not buying resources’ option as a cheaper solution (as it probably won’t be) – we should make the decision based on the quality aspects and strategic benefits.

Strategically – working with teachers to develop resources, is a very important element of upskilling them to being competent digitally capable practitioners. So any cost invested in the development of resources with or by teachers – isn’t just creating resources but is forming part of the CPD requirement for those staff – if we think about this issue from this perspective alone, financially this becomes much more attractive.

Other benefits are:

  1. Resources will be developed in line with your existing systems, infrastructure, house styles etc. so will ultimately become more embedded than buying off the shelf resources.
  2. Resources will be easier to adapt in line with changes to curricula, subject knowledge, or changes to the devices being used to consume the content.
  3. Resources won’t be as locked down, so will be easier to make more accessible, and adapt easier if required.
  4. Resources can be tailored to the specific location of the organisation – e.g. an organisation teaching catering, can make reference to their own training kitchen. Organisations teaching travel and tourism that are based near the sea, can use resources based on local resorts – this can make a huge difference to learners as they make the transition from fully face to face learning, to blended learning.
  5. With the right amount of support from learning technologists, and high quality staff development – it is possible for a good teacher with average levels of IT ability and a bit of time to generate adequate quality resources that would be comparable or even better than the commercial options (Many of the resources that I have developed with or for organisations are significantly better than the purchasable options).
  6. There are loads of free learning resources or assets out there in terms of OER (Open Education Resources), Creative Commons images, YouTube videos, iTunes courses etc. so creating resources, is not about building everything from scratch – it is about locating, and evaluating existing content – then bringing this together in a sensible way that supports the learner through the journey. If a teacher is creating their own content, I would argue that they should only be creating a maximum of 25% – the other 75% should be free external resources, or adaptations of existing resources used in classroom sessions.
  7. FELTAG is about a whole organisation approach to this area of work. By going down this route, the organisation as a whole will learn and develop and adapt as part of the journey.

Some of the disadvantages are:

  1. For this to be successful this needs to be effectively managed and resourced, which may mean organisations taking a long and hard look at themselves and deciding if they have the management ability to do this – and if they don’t, how do they change the personnel so they can.
  2. Developing resources takes time. When organisations were looking down the barrel of the gun trying to get things done by September 2015, time wasn’t a luxury at their disposal – the dropping of the 10% online being mandatory has given organisations more time (which I think is good) – but they still need to plan carefully, how and when and what order to develop courses. One option is for teachers to be given up front time to develop online resources/activities etc. before the course starts – another option is for the teacher to be given time as the course is running, and as long as they stay ahead of the students will be OK. Either way, you don’t often get things completely right the first time – you need to create something, use it with the learners, evaluate how it went, adapt accordingly etc. I believe that it takes about 3 iterations of this cycle before online elements of courses get to a really good standard.
  3. Some teachers don’t have the skills required, and never will – this then creates a problem for management – do they allow those staff to go to pastures new? or do they carry on putting a greater workload on the teachers that can?
  4. Creating resources in house requires an effective support team. Many organisations at the moment don’t have this (or enough staff in these teams) – and especially for smaller organisations, bringing in staff with the right range of skills can be challenging.

If organisations choose to create resources in house, they can help themselves by thinking of the procedure up front. e.g. who will do the work? If support teams are required, how are they managed and their time charged to the individual teams? What quality assurance procedures or processes will be in place, and most importantly who will manage the process for each different team or course?

Whereas I welcome comments on my blog posts, please don’t use this blog post as a way to either promote or criticise any particular companies or products. Any such comments I will delete.

The next and final blog post in this series, will be summarising the considerations covered in the previous 3 posts.

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#FELTAG – Considerations when buying off the shelf resources

In my previous post, I introduced the idea of ‘to buy or not to buy resources’. In this post I will be looking at considerations if you choose to buy resources. The next post will look at the considerations for not buying.

There are certainly potential advantages to buying resources, but I have experienced a lot of places wasting a lot of money on the wrong resources, or buying them for the wrong reasons – I hope that this series of posts will help organisations to make a more informed decision before deciding one way or another.

There are two very strong arguments in favour of buying in resources:

  1. The quality of resources should be of a much higher quality than what an average teacher could produce as part of their average working week.
  2. It doesn’t make financial sense for every teacher in the UK (and beyond) to produce what are in essence the same resources to cover the same criteria, for the same qualifications. Pooling resources and letting a content creation company produce these for all providers, and people then pay for what they need, on the surface seems to make financial sense. If we look at the non-technology analogy, each teacher doesn’t go and write their own text book, we buy a selection of core texts from publishers, and fill our libraries with them, the teacher then uses their skills to signpost to students the key pages and activities at the appropriate time during the course.

From a practical point, some organisations simply don’t have the skills and support mechanisms in house to support teachers to create the standards expected. Or if you have a teaching team that is very small, there may not be the capacity or skill within that team to develop the online elements, and in these cases buying in may become more attractive.

So, if an organisation chooses to purchase off the shelf resources, there are generally two options:

  1. Buy the resources outright with a single payment, and then own them forever.
  2. Pay an annual fee for the right to use the resources.
Image of a book case with lots of different coloured books


Method 1, is akin to buying books upfront, and is the easiest to account for and plan ahead (there are no unexpected increases in price in the future), however at some point in the future the resources will become out of date, either due to qualification changes, changes to the topic, or the technology used becoming defunct (e.g. Resources produced in Flash). This then requires further purchases down the line.

Method 2, will benefit from resources being constantly updated, but financially once you have used the resources for a few years, the provider will be able to increase the annual fee, so difficult to plan ahead, and overall the cost long term will become significant. Usually with the annual fee model, the resources will sit on their server, which means users either need different login details to their usual logins, or the resources need to come with an integration mechanism into the organisation VLE, (which some provide) however these are sometimes not as straight forward as you would expect, and the ways that the resources can be used may be restricted by this mechanism. Another problem is that quite often they will only work when online, which again isn’t ideal for teaching rooms that aren’t connected, or students wanting to work in an offline environment.

If an organisation is thinking of buying off the shelf packages, there are some considerations or questions to ask:

  1. Ask to see a sample of the resources before buying. Each provider of resources will have demo units or similar available, but these will be the best quality ones they have to offer. Ask to see a unit of your choosing, and make your judgement from that – you will be very surprised how much difference there is between the two at times. If they refuse to give you access to a unit of your choice, walk away – they are obviously embarrassed by the quality of that unit.
  2. If you are going for the annual licence option, check where the resources are actually stored, and what would happen if the publishing company went bust next week. The ideal scenario is for the resources to be hosted by a specialist hosting company, and one which has been paid for at least 12 months in advance. This way if the publishing company goes bust, you still have access to the resources for the duration of the contract.
  3. Check the accessibility of the resources – many of the resources being produced are sadly very poor accessibility wise, and because the resources will be ‘locked’ by the seller it will be almost impossible to adapt them – resulting in the teacher having to recreate all the resources again, which defeats the purpose of buying the resources in the first place.
  4. Check what format the resources are in. Any resources that are produced in flash or with flash elements are not going to work on iPhones, iPads, many Android devices and in the future possibly other devices, so flash based resources should be avoided altogether. If resources include other file types such as Word or PowerPoint these should also be provided in alternate formats (e.g. PDF, Open Office etc.) and if videos are included, these need to be tested on multiple device types and shouldn’t be excessively large.
  5. Check the subject accuracy of the resources. I recently reviewed some anatomy resources for the teaching of sport, and was horrified by the number of errors the resources contained even though the resources had been proof-read by teachers and endorsed by one of the major awarding bodies. I wasn’t specifically looking for errors, but these jumped out at me, so I expect there must have been many less obvious mistakes as well.

One disadvantage (which many don’t consider) of using the entire courses or units that can be purchased off the shelf, is you actually make it very hard to ever become ‘outstanding’ – as the term outstanding means ‘standing out’ from the rest. If you have bought such a course or unit, you are unlikely to stand out from all the other people who have bought the same course or unit. Obviously there are things that the teachers could do to enhance or enrich the use of these courses, to get up to outstanding level, but reality is that the attraction of these purchases, is managers can then reduce the amount of money spent on teachers time, and even if teachers have the desired amounts of time, many will find it very hard to enhance or enrich an already ‘complete’ unit or course.

And finally – make sure the right people in the organisations are making the decisions – e.g. the teachers need to be involved to make sure they are appropriate academicaly, technical people need to be involved to ensure they will fit into organisations systems/VLEs etc. and strategically the budget holder has to make the decision as to not just the initial purchase, but on going maintenance, updates, CPD requirements etc.

The next post in this series, will look at the considerations of not buying in external resources.

Whereas I welcome comments on my blog posts, please don’t use this blog post as a way to either promote or criticise any particular companies or products. Any such comments I will delete.

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