Online and Digital Learning

What makes a 21st Century teacher? (Durham Blackboard Conference 2013)

Summary of Panel Discussion: What makes a 21st Century teacher?

Durham Blackboard Users Conference, Durham University, 8-9 January 2013.

Panelists: Ray Land, Richard Pears (Durham University); Jeremy Knox (Edinburgh University); Peter Felton (Elon University, USA); Mike Cameron and Iain Wheeldon (Newcastle University).

Chair: Malcolm Murray

Summary of Panel Discussion: What makes a 21st Century teacher?

Durham Blackboard Users Conference, Durham University, 8-9 January 2013.

Panelists: Ray Land, Richard Pears (Durham University); Jeremy Knox (Edinburgh University); Peter Felton (Elon University, USA); Mike Cameron and Iain Wheeldon (Newcastle University).

Chair: Malcolm Murray

The panel discussed how 21st Century tutors need to adapt to a 21st Century way of teaching. Below is quite a thorough breakdown of the discussion, with a spattering of my own experience. I have tried to attribute the ideas as best I can. At the bottom is my ‘summary’ take on what a 21st Century teacher is.

This is the first of several posts on the conference. Follow me on Twitter for updates: @mattcornock.

The 21st Century: complexity and uncertainty

Ray Land began by outlining how we might define what the term ’21st Century’ is or should be in relation to education. Essentially, he states, it is “code for the state we are in”, not the future hopes or reflective perceptions. Land’s view is that we are in a state which is “complex”, runs in “fast-time”, is “uncertain” and hence offers much “risk”. These themes were discussed in a previous conference keynote, and ones I find particularly interesting. Land continues by saying that “the big issues of our time do not have easy solutions”, so our graduates must be adaptable to complexity and comfortable with uncertainty. HE provides an opportunity for students to “experience” the ’21st Century’ in a safe and supported way, and our tutors should be capable of providing that experience.

Mike Cameron offered a description of the 21st Century as “following the old paradigm but translating it online.” Drawing upon the example of lecture capture recordings or screencasts instead of physically attending a lecture in a room, though this presented an image of education stifled in some way. Restricted either by tutor’s technical ability or institutional policies, translating ‘old’ teaching methods directly online appeared to be common practice (sadly).

Cameron suggested that one of the first skills required by a tutor would be the ability to understand the way that their institution worked: the politics and negotiations that would facilitate progress. I think we may all relate to this, and those that are very good at understanding ‘the system’ are either seen as mavericks or progressive champions. Cameron also suggested that we need to move away from the “button pushing” approach to learning new technologies, instead focusing on adaptability, understanding that technology is not the final solution but a means to achieve a bigger goal (one would hope learning focused). Developing adaptability requires a willingness to engage with uncertainty.

Engaging the 21st Century teacher

Responding to a question from the floor about whether we should be “taking staff to uncomfortable places” as well as stretching our students, Peter Felten depicted the US culture of academia (parallels with the UK in the following regard). Indicating academic staff (and to be fair most staff) resenting being dictated too from above and appreciating an independent way of working, Felten encouraged us to “invite” rather than “push” technologies and approaches upon them. Felten admits that part of the problem is that staff do not know what is available, however showing off discretely and “bringing people along” is a more effective approach than saying “you have to do this”. In this respect, staff aren’t forcibly removed from their comfort zone, but instead tempted by what may lie on the periphery. The example Felten provides is casually using the tagging feature to find a particular article within an online bookmarking or journal system whilst in a meeting with another member of staff. This catches the colleague’s eye, and hence a new technology is introduced. Felten encourages a “small victories” approach, by finding out what the goals of individuals are and tailoring the approach to support to fit these. An approach, from experience, I think works particularly well when you have the resource to provide ad hoc support to introduce technologies in a ‘just-in-time’, problem-solving approach (a problem that’s pedagogic or administrative, rather than technical).

A transition to an “uncomfortable place” challenges the personal ideologies of individual staff. Felten stated that change is “viral” and “spreads from office to office”, and hence to attempt to change ‘en mass’ via workshops or directives from upon high will do little to alter personal attitudes. This underlines the importance of understanding individual goals and individual motivations. In understanding individuals’ priorities, we may influence change.

The challenge of prioritising

Looking now at the thematic challenges to tutors developing skills, Iain Wheeldon made an interesting point about the priorities of academic staff. As an LT who supports a number of staff, I am constantly tip-toeing the line of burden wondering how many new ideas in learning technology to push onto my colleagues. Will they want to understand the subtleties of instructional design? Will they want to spend the time getting to grips and testing adaptive release rules? How does what I’m asking them to do fit in with their administration, research, teaching preparation, dissemination, professional development and motivation? Wheeldon’s explanation for the cry of ‘I don’t have time’ is that colleagues may find it difficult to differentiate between what is a passing fad and a strategic cornerstone. Institutions (and individuals within institutions) often champion new ideas and approaches (pilots), drawing upon the latest fashion (for example recent NSS scores or a student-led critical report). Staff become familiar with such patterns and therefore may treat significant developments in the same way, not worthy of extensive time and investment required for a dramatic shift in practice. Wheeldon suggests that the encouragement for adoption and exploration of new fundamental practices often isn’t there, leaving success down to “individual passions” and “fighting for resources.”

Enabling a change of practice

Responding to a question about the balancing of academics’ work load when new technologies are introduced, Ian Wheeldon described an approach which lessens uncertainty or risk, and supports staff by removing the administrative burden and the difficulties of learning new technologies. Instead he encourages staff to focus on their expertise and prioritises the creation of content. The LT can then support the design and conversion of this content into elearning (drawing upon the LT expertise). It appears to me that ‘collaboration’ plays a bigger part in the 21st Century teacher than it has ever done before.

In order to facilitate a change in practice, he suggests a ‘meeting in the middle’ of top-down directives and the enthusiasm of elearning champions who are willing to go the extra mile. Hence, there is a driver both from management and the inspiration/peer-pressure from fellow teaching colleagues.

Yet, Wheeldon also raised the point of ‘risk aversion’ present in staff and at an institutional level. Risk comes about when there is uncertainty, and uncertainty about the effects of learning technologies comes about because of a lack of detail about potential benefits. He referred to the “competitive” way that tutors may access resources in order to develop new approaches, with institutions focussing on assessing “value”. The competitive allocation of resources seems to me the process by which ‘risk’ is managed by the institution.

For individuals, prioritisation and adoption is affected by the difficulties in finding or understanding, what Mike Cameron referred to as, “tangible benefits” in the use of learning technologies. As mentioned before, the key here I think is to do with peer drivers and identifying benefits supported by data (reducing perceived unknown and hence perceived risk). My approach to staff engagement based on the use of student feedback and data is outlined in part within my ALT 2012 short paper.

When ideas do come to fruition, they are enclosed within what Wheeldon describes as the “stoneage villages” (Departmental silos) that comprise a University (general consensus amongst the audience is that this metaphor was particularly apt at representing the archaic working structure of our institutions). Part of our job as LTs perhaps is to become ambassadors between villages, facilitate cross-communication between such silos and to encourage sharing. Indeed, this appears to be the ‘unwritten’ job description of many LTs in central support teams (perhaps the one true inter-disciplinary collaborative teams at a university).

Staff, students and technology

The discussion moved onto the relationship between staff, students and technology. Peter Felton introduced the idea that tutors could learn a lot about education itself by the way that students use technology in their personal lives. Referring to “participatory cultures” and gaming, where students may be engrossed in “complex” and challenging thought processes for what is an apparent meaningless activity, the students are nonetheless engaged and motivated. I’m not an expert on ‘serious games’ or gaming strategies, but one of my colleagues told me about a session at ALT 2012 on the way that students achieved points or gaming rewards the more resources they utilised, in a flexible path through a series of learning objects. Understanding the way that students engross themselves in gaming methods could provide us new insights into creating engaging learning experiences.

Richard Pears reminded us that we mustn’t assume that our students are using or wish to use technology in a particular way. Each individual will have their own preferred devices, preferred methods of engaging with that device and limitations on their own abilities (abilities we might say often overestimated). The same applies to staff. Pears referred to the example of students being trained in ebooks, but without the fundamental ability to search a library catalogue. This is something I have experienced myself when I coordinate a study skills course for Year 1 Undergraduates. Students often present themselves confident in the ability to search the web and find resources, yet in practical sessions many realise that the systems used for academia are often a little more unintuitive than your typical Google search. However, a large proportion still call for the sessions to be ‘optional’, which is something I deliberate on an annual basis. A heavy risk based on student’s not knowing what they don’t know.

Jeremy Knox concluded this section by encouraging us not to forget the role of the tutor. Knox indicated that whilst technology can offer us many opportunities to support learner-centred pedagogies, we must not be driven by the way students use technologies to tell tutors how to use technology next. There is a risk that “the role of the teacher is devalued”. I think this relates to my study skills course problem above. If the course was designed around students only using the tools they are already comfortable with, or their belief they already know it, then the students would be missing out on the opportunities provided by the expertise of the tutor. This is not to say that the tutor must be prescriptive, but could instead offer multiple pathways, teasers if you will, to encourage the students out of their comfort zone.

The twenty-four/seven 21st Century teacher

A short aside looking at the administrative load on the 21st Century teacher came from a question from the audience on how to manage student expectations with regards to the ’24/7′, ‘always-on’ tutor. We regularly hear anecdotes of students complaining that staff aren’t responding to emails, when in reality they are, but usually the day after the email was sent, rather than the student expectation of within five minutes. Ray Land and Iain Wheeldon responded to this the same way I would: set your expectations early! If you don’t inform your students how you will respond to their queries then you are setting them up for disappointment. However, if you do tell them what to expect (even if it’s “please allow 48 hours”), then it will be easier to meet that expectation (because it exists and isn’t dependent upon the student setting their own expectation). You can do this in handbooks, module outlines, your first lecture, or (as we have) with ‘office hours’ listed on the VLE for every member of staff with their preferred method of contact. The flip-side is that if you are the sort of person who checks your email at midnight and a quick email from a student has come in that you can reply in two sentences, you shouldn’t reply at midnight as that gives the impression you are the ‘always on’ teacher, undermining your own expectation setting!

How skills are recorded

Responding to an audience question on whether we need to prescribe a set of skills required for new academics, Ray Land was clear to point out that teaching skills are often, in Higher Education at least, developed on the job. He described HE tutor recruitment as very dynamic, responding to immediate changes in the knowledge required and expertise we wish to expose students to. The pool of staff may comprise lecturers, researchers, casual teaching staff and guest speakers. Hence, we may call upon industry experts, casual teaching staff, short-term lecturers for specific course learning objectives. It is not practical therefore to require all teaching staff to possess teaching qualifications prior to appointment. However, those that aim to progress in the system should expose themselves to the development opportunities such as PGCAP and HEA Fellowship. Land pointed out also the proficiency frameworks devised to support this approach for early-career academics. Arguably, I might add this is a more beneficial approach as tutors are then learning within a supportive community of practice instead of abstractly outside of an institution (and the cultures and politics therein).


The 21st Century teacher must be willing to put themselves in an uncomfortable position, to take risks and to embrace uncertainty in the same way we aim to develop our students’ abilities to embrace uncertainty in the modern world. Whilst the 21st Century teacher is not expected to become an expert in all things elearning, they should be supported according to their priorities and invited to develop their understanding through communication and collaboration outside of their own working spheres. The 21st Century teacher should not be devalued, but should maintain their role as the content expert, developing engaging courses which are receptive to student learning trends but not dictated by them. The 21st Century teacher also needs an appreciation of ‘game playing’ in the institution, to understand the politics and processes within which they work to avail themselves of the resources to enable them to take risks. The 21st Century teacher should let themselves be supported, and in turn support and motivate their peers.

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