As a new curriculum specialist, I was over the moon excited to start pushing the boundaries of education technology. What I discovered was that the challenges of using technology in higher education are significant, and nearly invisible until you smash your classroom right into one.
Then the real fun begins.
We all have dreams of flying cars that brush our teeth while doing our jobs and teaching us French, but the reality is that these “next-level” machines do not exist.
What we have instead are imperfect technologies that can be as destructive as helpful if not wielded with great care.
The Commonwealth of Learning’s recently published Guide to Blended Learning (1) has highlighted some of the difficulties with the appropriate use of technology in blended learning courses, and I have added my takes on these issues from my experiences in higher education.
Obstacle #1: Technology accessibility.
Students do not all have equal access to devices or other technological resources.
The Wide Variety of Student Devices
Your students’ devices may range from a $5,000 laptop to an inexpensive smartphone that’s memory card is nearly full.
Most courses do give recommended devices, but there’s no guarantee that the students are using them and experiencing the course as it was intended.
I usually don’t even know what kind of device a student is using until well after the course is underway.
My concern here, particularly with students on mobile devices, would be that mobile app menus usually have significantly fewer features than their full-fledged desktop counterparts. Some of the features on the desktop may be integral to student participation in live synchronous sessions.
Suddenly, we are in a situation where a student cannot fully participate and this is not an easy fix to resolve.
It’s worth testing out your course on different devices that students are likely to use even if they are not the recommended ones.
Differences Between Operating Systems
Another challenge of using technology in higher education is related to different operating systems. For example, it is not uncommon for students using Apple computers to have a “buggy” experience learning with Microsoft Teams.
Are you sure that your course platform works well with both of the two main operating systems?
Bandwidth Issues Causing Connection Problems
Perhaps the most prevalent and heart-breaking accessibility issue deals with poor bandwidth resulting in continuous connection problems.
It’s a good idea to understand exactly which resources your students do and do not have before setting about designing your course.
This information allows you to choose learning technologies and activities that are appropriate for students to be able to access without undue difficulty.
Obstacle #2: Netiquette & Online Safety Issues
Learning Online isn’t without its dangers: cyberbullying, cheating, bullying, harassment, trolling, academic dishonesty or even criminal acts like identity theft can happen in a partially or fully online blended learning course.
To prevent creating an unsafe learning environment, the instructional designers must consider all the potential pitfalls and plan on how to deal with them before they even begin.
Obstacle #3: Technology Training & Support
One of the major issues that occur in online courses is that students or staff have difficulties using the technology integrated into the course either because of its complexity or a lack of training and support.
Is training needed for students?
Nowadays, students are considered “digital natives”, which means they are experienced with technology, but inexperienced with educational technology.
It would be unwise to assume that students are simply going to pick up how to use the technology integrated into the course without some sort of formal training as well as a support system for troubleshooting problems.
The technological ability of staff is also a major concern here.
Some educators are comfortable and enthusiastic about learning new technologies. Other teachers, to be quite frank, absolutely hate technology and resent every second of its existence.
The hard part is that these modern Luddites are often skilled, experienced and valuable educators in a face-to-face context.
With these folks, an additional layer of new technology that they need to utilize, but they’re not experienced with it, can be extremely frustrating. I’ve often heard teachers bemoan learning a new platform because it was taking them twice as long to do their jobs as it used to.
I’ve also heard people say that this was entirely a training problem and that offering proper development opportunities for staff would be a cure-all for this.
While there’s nothing wrong with professional development, I believe this issue boils down more to the technology chosen and how “user-friendly” it is.
A perfect example of this would be Google Workspace versus Office 365. The first is extremely easy to use while the second requires extensive training and frequently frustrates staff who are used to a more “user-friendly” experience.
There’s a limit to how much training educators can absorb while performing their normal teaching duties.
Therefore, it’s vital to put the proper emphasis on selecting technological components that are not significantly more complex than teachers are used to or can even handle.
Technology is a double-edged sword that can sometimes cause more problems than solutions. Pre-assessing both your student and staff’s technological resources and capabilities is critical to developing a course that runs smoothly.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of frustration here, and determining how to address the above concerns is paramount when attempting to address the challenges of using technology in higher education courses.
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