On 10 November, a debate at UCL (#UCLedtech) saw members of the academic community, in the form of students and lecturers, pitched against CEOs of ed tech providers to answer just this question.

The panel from left to right: Paul Balogh, Chief Executive, Lean Forward; John Baker, Chief Executive, D2L; Rajay Naik, Chief Executive, Keypath; Sareh Heidari, PhD student in the UCL London Centre for Nanotechnology; Maren Deepwell (chair), Chief Executive, Association for Learning Technology; Diana Laurillard, Chair of Learning with Digital Technology at UCL Institute of Education; Dave White, Head of Technology Enhanced Learning, University of the Arts; Andrea Sella, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at UCL.

Discussion quickly moved to address ‘What’s the purpose of ed tech?’. Is it to widen participation; improve learner outcomes; or enable scale, choice, increase retention or productivity?

Our teaching and learning is constantly evolving, yet we look to technology for innovation. Dave White reasoned that face-to-face universities, with their lecture theatres, weren’t necessarily based on social pedagogies and that centralised online systems don’t reflect the complexity of how we actually communicate. In the online environment, technology focuses our attention on problems that are less visible, yet persist, in the offline world. [Insert your own thoughts here as to pedagogy being fit for purpose.]

There was a strong argument for a holistic approach, with a greater focus on the student, as opposed to a curriculum led-approach.

Let’s take MOOCs as an example. The technology has enabled greater experimentation with social pedagogies, which has tapped the curiosity of adult learners and have proved most disruptive in the context of workplace training/CPD rather than HE.

So, with the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) on the horizon, we need to recognise that there’s a dichotomy. Higher Education Institutions need to continue to innovate with both pedagogy and technology to push our practice further forward. Unless we embrace experimentation, particularly outside our own institutions, we’re more likely to focus on the risks and constraints of existing technologies and overlook the opportunities to experiment with pedagogy and re-imagine existing paradigms.

‘We get the best from technology when we give it our hardest problems’

Diana Laurillard