#eAssess20 keynote: Learning from 25 years of TEL history to prepare for an uncertain future

I am glad to be able to contribute this opening keynote (slides) to what has been a conference long in the making. Originally this conference was to take place in late April – but this being the year it has been, the organisers have worked very hard to create a virtual event.

The eAssessment Association is a fellow professional body, and like ALT, plays an important role in support a community of professionals who are under a lot of pressure just now to deliver at a scale and within a scope that exceeds much of what we have been used to.

And that is important to remember and reflect on as we consider what we can learn from 25 years of history in Learning Technology to meet the challenges of an uncertain future.

I have organised and participated in many virtual events of all shapes and sizes, and I find that being online and watching video for hours is extremely tiring. We have all had many weeks of highly stressful and exhausting days, both at work and at home. So I invite you to sit back and listen. The slides from this talk including links to all the references I mention are openly accessible and there is nothing to do now for the next 25 minutes except to enjoy the start of what I am sure will be a wonderful conference.

Specifically, this talk will focus on sharing practical insights and expertise in relation to three key questions:

  • how to build staff capacity to use technology for learning, teaching and assessment effectively online and at scale;
  • how to make use of best practice frameworks and open education practices;
  • how to tackle equity and inclusion in online education.

Before we jump right in however, let me tell you a bit about who I am and the community of thousands of Members from the UK and beyond whom I represent.

Until recently, I had no idea what a ‘Learning Technology’ emergency might be. But after months of crisis support, organising webinars, collating resources and sharing whatever support we can, I have a very clear idea of how big a challenge we are facing when it comes to scaling up learning, teaching and assessment with technology.

@BryanMMathers from 25 Years of Ed Tech is available fro @au_press
Free PDF, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license:

In the rush to pivot, pirouette or simply rush to virtual ways of doing things, it felt like a whole new audience was discovering questions that many of us were already familiar with. From being a ‘nice to have’ using technology effectively suddenly became a must have for everyone overnight. It’s not surprising that in the early days of the pandemic and the lock down it felt like we had no idea how to meet these enormous challenges. But even though this global crisis is often described as ‘unprecedented’ we do have in fact decades of research and successful practice, partnerships with industry and knowledge sharing networks across the globe. As an Association we celebrated our 25th anniversary nearly two years ago and the expertise and experience we have as a community certainly shows us what steps we might take into an uncertain future.

It is important for us to learn from the history of education technology, to explore what we know works and what doesn’t – and importantly to gain a sense of perspective that the current crisis makes is extremely hard to retain.

As staff leading organisations to the start of a new term amidst a lot of uncertainty, taking a longer view can help us gain a better understanding of when technology can help and what it can’t do. Looking back, as well as ahead, also prompts us to reflect on our relationship with technology, and how it mediates the way we work with each other and the way we relate to students.

Assessment has always been key to using technology in education. It’s an expression of what we value, what we can measure… and what goes left unsaid. Right here, right now, you trust me to present this keynote talk to you and I trust you to participate. There are many, many things going on where we are, family members coming into the room, pets, too, there is probably windows with work emails, windows with social media feeds, windows with personal shopping, windows with… anything else that currently demands your attention. Trust is part of the virtual undertaking just as it forms an important part of how we behave towards each other in person.

People, not technology, are what makes online learning work – and there is no magic button to solve all the messy, human ‘problems’ that are part of every virtual learning experience. People, staff and students, are always at the heart of our work.

For several years now, ALT’s Annual Survey has provided valuable insight into current practice in Learning Technology and how technology is used across sectors

When we look at what the key enables and drivers for use of Learning Technology are, the top results are always student and staff engagement, commitment, knowledge and time. Scaling up design and delivery online is going to require increasing capacity. Professional bodies like ALT can help by providing access to expertise for recruitment, openly sharing research and best practice and facilitating knowledge exchange between organisations across sectors and with industry. 

Recent estimates shared by Professor Tony Bates showed that institutions in the US and Canada are preparing for an increase in staff supporting Learning Technology by 15-25%. ALT’s Annual Survey 2020 highlights priorities for learning, teaching and assessment that point towards an increase for Learning Technology across the board. Of particular note in the survey is the recorded increasing importance of web conferencing/virtual classroom software and collaborative tools suggesting that the sector was already building capacity in these areas prior to COVID-19. 

One of the ways we have recently contributed to building professional capacity is to expand ALT’s framework of professional practice and capabilities to reflect the increasingly wide range of roles that have a Learning Technology component. The number of roles which require Learning Technology is only set to increase in the coming years, making it ever more important to set out not just operational standards, but also recognise the wider context of Learning Technology policy, theory and history as fundamental to its ethical, equitable and fair use.

The analysis of current and future trends also helps establish key areas in which to grow capacity, such as virtual learning environments, particularly in the light of the expanded accessibility legislation; virtual classroom and web conferencing tools, which are now in high demand and also collaborative tools as well as with e-assessment. E-Assessment has continued to be a to priority over the past six years, including online submission & feedback tools.

Yet as the technology has become more sophisticated and more widely adopted, so have concerns regarding their ethical and inclusive use. Learning Technology as a whole, and technology for assessment in particular, has brought wide ranging concerns and questions to the forefront of professional practice.

We have to act now, to tackle inequality and discrimination in all its forms, particularly as we look beyond the crisis. We already know that certain groups and communities are more affected by the pandemic and that working and learning at home brings with it a plethora of issues around access to infrastructure, devices and space. Beyond practical considerations, we must consider how complex technologies and algorithms function and how their inherent biases impact on staff and students alike particularly when it comes to assessment.

ALT has long supported open education in all its forms. In the recent crisis in particular, we have been able to support our Members and the wider community more effectively through open approaches, fostering knowledge sharing and transparency. We encourage professionals and organisations to adopt open licences for course materials, research and other content. Two areas in which this has been of particular importance are policy advocacy for ethical approaches to using data in education, copyright for online learning and sharing best practice around accessibility:

Weekly webinars organised by Members of ALT started on Friday 20th March in response to queries largely from those in higher education related to  copyright and online learning following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to online learning. The webinars are free to all and aimed at  those interested in talking about copyright challenges at the current time and how we can address them. The organisers have published a page full of resources and the original blog post that led to starting this series on Copyright, Fair Dealing and Online Teaching in a time of Crisis.

I feel it is important to focus on these aspects of using technology as well as more operational questions as these issues are only becoming more urgent as we move more and more students online. Our professional practice has to find ways of tackling (structural) inequalities and help identify the blind spots in our perspectives.

Last summer when our Annual Conference took place in Edinburgh, I was very inspired by a wonderful keynote given by Jesse Stommel. I’d encourage you to watch the entire talk, Critical Pedagogy, Civil Disobedience and Edtech. For this talk, I’d like to include one particular quote, which encourages us to undertake a ‘critical examination of our technologies, what they afford, who they exclude, how they’re monetized, and what pedagogies they have already baked in. But it requires we also begin with a consideration of what we value, the kinds of relationships we want to develop with our students, why we gather together in places like universities and how humans learn.

Now, a year ago, this already seemed like an urgent priority, but in light of what has happened this year, it seems even more poignant. As we plan for an uncertain future, trusting in students and trusting in staff, rather than implementing more sophisticated ways of tracking, analysing and watching each other seems like a good place to start. And that is the thought that I hope you will carry with you over the next days and week as you participate in this conference and as you go on to plan for a new, unprecedented, academic year.