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Future Uses Of Digital Technolgies in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: An Evaluation

Darien Rossiter

Division of Information Services

Queensland University of Technology



"Technology is changing the way we think and providing a new window to the world"

QUT undergraduate student, 1997

The rationale behind this Queensland University of Technology study was to examine how we might guide and exploit the use of emerging technologies in a new world. Digital technologies are irrevocably changing the face of higher education, but despite pockets of 'good practice', there is little evidence to suggest that the higher education sector is comfortable with such developments, or ready to provide leadership in relation to their use.

Within our universities, there are some who celebrate new approaches to teaching and advances in technologies, but many more continue to be apprehensive, even cynical about them. This paper reports on the major findings and outcomes from an extensive study carried out at QUT, including an overview of the technologies which appear to align most closely with the University's future needs and priorities, and the institutional factors which influence the implementation of technology based programs. While the recommendations pertain to QUT, many of the issues discussed will be relevant to all those grappling with the implications of technological advance in the knowledge age.

Background to the Study

The decade of the nineties has been a turbulent time for the higher education sector. It began with universities trying to consolidate and to set clear institutional directions after the 'revolutionary' reforms introduced in the late 1980's by John Dawkins, Minister for Employment, Education and Training. The rationale behind the Unified National System introduced by Dawkins, was to remove the distinctions between the university and non- university higher education institutions, to bring about a rationalisation of the system and to encourage notions of inter-institutional collaboration and co-operation. This underpinned initiatives such as the establishment of the Distance Education Centres (DECs) and a string of collaborative programs (Co-operative Research Centres, Co-operative Multimedia Centres, ARC Collaborative Research Grants, Key Centres for Teaching and Research) conceived to strengthen the ties and working relationships between the university sector and industry, professional bodies and society.

Far from a period of system unification and consolidation, however, the nineties have been a time when new disruptive forces have emerged, former ones have regenerated and the pressure for change has increased rather than diminished. To date, the decade has been marked by instability and contradiction, and by counter forces between: institutional co-operation and competition, growing student numbers and decreasing government funding, educational quality and cost efficiencies, traditional and innovative educational philosophies.

The Queensland University of Technology (QUT) was established in 1989, at the beginning of this era, although its history can be traced back to 1911 with the foundation of the Brisbane Technical College. Since the late eighties QUT has experienced significant growth to become Australia's sixth largest university, with eight Faculties and a student population of over 28,000 students, 2,150 off-campus enrolments and 2,500 international students. QUT has three metropolitan campuses, located in the central CBD at Gardens Point, in the inner suburb of Kelvin Grove and in the northern suburban corridor at Carseldine.

The current achievements of the University have been largely attributable to its reputation for quality teaching, its emphasis on the practical application of knowledge and its long standing close involvement with industry. QUT is also justifiably proud of its pioneering efforts in the development of computer-based education (CBE), begun in the mid 1980's, but escalating during the early 1990's when, for example, lecturers saw this an alternative to conventional ways of dealing with the repetitive functions associated with teaching very large classes.

The need for cost effectiveness, for increased accessibility to and accountability in educational programs was uppermost in the minds of University administrators and decision makers at this time. While it was clear that computer-based education had strong support from some quarters of the University, there were those who argued that funds could be better directed elsewhere. Furthermore, at that time, a plethora of new educational technologies was emerging, technologies that promised exciting ways to serve new and diverse student markets, to improve learning outcomes and teaching efficiencies. The University community, however, had divergent expectations about how such technological opportunities could be exploited and the future direction in which QUT should be heading.

Against this background, it was decided that funds from the 1995 Commonwealth Government Quality Assurance in Higher Education Grants would be allocated to the Division of Information Services to undertake an evaluation of computer based education.

Ultimately, it was determined that two complementary studies would be conducted; one to evaluate the efficacy of computer based education programs developed by CBE, and the other to provide an overview of the potential uses of new computer based technologies to enhance the educational process at QUT. The latter formed the basis of an extensive evaluation on "Future Uses of Digital Technologies in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education" conducted during 1997 and is the focus of this paper.

Research Design

The purpose of the study was to carry out a formative evaluation "...of the innovative uses and emerging trends in digital technologies in order to provide strategic advice for the ongoing development of teaching and learning programs at QUT". The research design entailed extensive interviews, focus group and exploratory discussion sessions, a number of site visits, a literature search and scan of web sites for examples of 'good' educational practice and new developments in the use of digital technologies. The ultimate aim of the project was to align the results of these findings with the institutional values and culture which the University community (staff and students) had indicated they would like to see preserved in the future.

One of the useful data collection techniques was the distribution of a set a scenarios designed to help people envision a teaching and learning environment at QUT in five years. The scenarios presented four alternatives: a state of incremental change; one representing extensive integration of technology on-campus; a distributed learning environment; and a "virtual university". Opinions and comments about the scenarios (and about the study in general) were sought using a variety of media including email, written feedback, telephone and personal conversation. In addition much of the data collected through interviews and personal discussion was verified through reports, internal papers and other relevant documentation.

Integrating Technology into Teaching and Learning

The study identified a number of important concepts which relate to the integration of technologies into teaching and learning environments in higher education. It is important, for example, to appreciate how academic staff are using educational technologies in order to develop appropriate support services and staff development programs. Is technology being used primarily to 'repackage' content, to enhance existing teaching practice or to qualitatively change the nature of the learning experience?

Another outcome was to elaborate a model of good practice for selecting, using and evaluating technology in education. The model, adapted from Alexander and Blight (1996), and described more fully in the project report, addresses four essential criteria: the learning context, the learning content, the technologies available and the teaching and learning design. A straightforward taxonomy or classification of technologies was devised as part of the model, not as a prescriptive tool, but to prompt teachers to think about the underlying intent for a particular educational transaction or event. Once teaching and learning objectives have been determined, an appropriate choice of technology can be considered according to whether the technology is to be used for:

The technologies which belong to the first group include television, radio, one way satellite broadcasts, textbooks, lectures, mailouts of printed materials, fax, audio and video on demand over the Internet. They serve the conventional transmission or dissemination model of teaching but offer little opportunity for student clarification or discussion.

A distinguishing feature of the second cluster is that the learner largely works independently from direct teacher instruction or intervention, interrogating or interacting with information or program content and using the technology as the enabling mediator. The technologies, which accommodate information search, retrieval or resource-based learning, include computer-based and interactive multimedia technologies, either stand alone (CD ROM) or networked (WWW), online libraries and mixed media packages (video, CD ROM, workbook). High levels of learner interaction are possible with some of these technologies, indeed are essential for active and problem-based learning approaches, but the focus of the interaction is between the learner and the program, rather than the discursive form of interaction which occurs between the learner and teacher or peers.

Collaborative or conferencing technologies enable person to person communication, either in real time (synchronous) or delayed (asynchronous) forms. Previously, teleconferencing technologies ( audio, video and audiographic conferencing) dominated this group, but considerable diversification has occurred in recent years with the growth of Internet based applications, such as Internet Relay Chat (IRC), desktop conferencing, email, newsgroups and computer-mediated conferencing packages, ( such as Firstclass, Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange).

Technology Overload?

The scope of the technology survey was daunting in terms of the range of technologies covered and the rapidity in which they are appearing. In some ways it was easier to define "digital based technologies" through a process of exclusion (not covering analogue or optical technologies) rather than inclusion, but broadly speaking the evaluation looked at: technologies and applications traditionally associated with computer-based learning and training; networked and online technologies for information search, retrieval, autonomous and collaborative learning; communication technologies; presentation technologies; media development tools for design and production; and leading-edge technologies in visualisation, simulations and virtual reality.

The rationale behind this study was that because no single institution, indeed industry sector, can afford to support all these technologies, informed choices (and guidelines for making decisions) were urgently required. In the final analysis, a number of technology 'clusters' emerged which appeared to offer the most potential or have the greatest impact on higher education in the immediate to near future. These were: the Internet, in particular email and the World Wide Web (WWW); tools or systems to improve navigation and management of the Internet (browsers, metadata); technologies which furthered the integration of continuous media (such as audio and video) in networked environments; and collaborative and conferencing technologies.

While many of those interviewed felt the Internet was still a fairly crude educational tool, the overwhelming response was that it was a technology which couldn't be ignored. Green and Gilbert give an example of these type of technologies, such as the programmable calculator, that achieve widespread use, regardless of outcome of pilot projects or thorough investigations,

"the most compelling technological innovations do not require extensive analysis or evaluation before they become widely adopted and integrated into academic work." (Green and Gilbert, 1995: 221)

The Internet may well prove to be the 21st century equivalent of the calculator. It promises the infrastructure for an interconnected world, and yet there are still significant barriers (even for those who are connected) which have prevented it from becoming an indispensible technology offering unprecedented access to information, communication links and alternative learning environments. The World Wide Web in particular promises to revolutionise our working and learning experiences. In the view of the author, this will occur only when search and retrieval processes are improved. Development of improved navigation tools, browsers and intelligent agents, applications which improve users ability to organise and manage information, such as groupware, will advance the educational viability of the Internet as an integrated and relevant educational technology.

Robert Cailliau, co-inventor of the WWW argued in his key address to Ausweb 97, that organisation and management of information over the web must improve dramatically if it is to realise its full potential. Further research into structuring of documents, metadata, digests, advanced indexing and navigational tools must occur. Jim Miller, Domain Leader for Technology and Society, W3C, describes metadata as one of their core technologies and indicated that research into this field was a priority for his domain group. Metadata is "information about data" and refers to a comprehensive summary about a resource, including the intellectual content, the format, conditions of use, relationship between a particular resource and others, and so on.

Continuous media over networked environments is another group of technologies likely to enhance the teaching and learning experience in the future. For example, an increasing number of applications are supporting streamed video and audio over the Internet ("RealMedia", "Netshow", "WiredAudio" to name just a few). Although there are still real limitations in relation to technical quality and user acceptability, recent developments in this area are leading to realistic, rather than futuristic educational possibilities. The advantages of integrating all media into a networked environment are considerable from a teaching and learning perspective, increasing flexibility, convenience, timeliness and access to all resources and information irrespective of format or form.

Collaboration in learning and in the workforce is becoming increasingly important within a context of global economies and internationalisation of education, (Alessi, 1996; Pennell, 1997; Harasim, 1995), enabled by developments in both conventional telecommunication based teleconferencing applications and Internet based interactive communication spaces. In an educational context, teleconferencing and two way interaction for off-campus students addresses issues of isolation and motivation, and enhances the overall quality of their learning,

"...the experience of sharing and exploring ideas and ideologies with people of diverse backgrounds in an open learning mode benefits all students." (Rossiter; 1995: 14)

but recent studies have highlighted similar needs for on-campus students, particularly those enrolled in large undergraduate courses where there is little opportunity for personal interaction with lecturers and tutors. (Adams, 1997)

Aligning Technology with Institutional "Culture"

Choices about educational technology highlight competing dilemmas within universities; whether "to innovate with new and leading edge technology" or "to find better ways of using established technologies". The innovators are often keen to try the latest technologies, to push beyond known boundaries in pursuit of better teaching solutions, to improve access for their students or to simply try out the capabilities of the latest technological development.

Their colleagues and administrators are often more cautious and prefer a "wait and see" strategy which reduces the risk (and the gains) associated with innovative enterprises. In today's climate of funding cutbacks, competitive environments and diversified student markets, we need informed decisions about technology choice based not just on the capabilities of the technology but on the context in which they will be used. The context relates to the teaching and learning requirements, but it must also take into account the institution wide culture and attitude towards innovation and risk taking in teaching and course development.

These issues relate to the alignment, or organisational fit, of educational technology use with an institution's structure and management style. They have been the subject of recent reports (e.g. Yetton, 1997) and have played a vital role in the analysis and the ensuing recommendations of this study.

Institutional Issues

One of the most significant conclusions of the study was the need for a common purpose and shared vision for the whole University. The study revealed a lack of shared values and understandings about technology and teaching by staff (academic, professional and support), but consensus in so far as they were all seeking leadership and direction in this regard. Furthermore, some policies and organisational structures appear to have been driven by compromise or the promise of short term gain, more than a sense of shared vision or common purpose.

When seeking to carve out a new educational milieu, vision is essential for without that we go nowhere, but vision in itself is not enough - this was expressed over and over again. Institutional leadership and commitment through policy formulation, resource allocation, support and encouragement, must accompany the rhetoric espoused in mission statements and promotional campaigns. Gilbert (1996) refers to vision, path and support as the three essential elements to bring about desired and sustained change. The vision that is part of an individual project or innovation, no matter how inspiring, isn't enough to bring about the widespread or pervasive change we seek. Gilbert argues,

"What's needed along with a vision is path and support. The vision is where you are going. The path is how you get there. The support is the encouragement and tools you need to keep going." (Gilbert, AAHEGIST, online)

The institution has a crucial role to play in each of these; in creating a vision which everyone feels is "worth working towards", in formulating policy and goals which make possible that vision, in providing the necessary infrastructure and support services, and in nurturing a culture which encourages the 'mainstreaming' of appropriate new technology-enabled approaches.


The majority of the report recommendations focused on people issues rather than technologies: on student support and the need for more information about their needs and expectations; on staff development; on the need for University-wide discussion to manage change and to develop cohesive strategies for the future. A theme running through a number of the recommendations was the need to create balance and equilibrium in learning environments; to ensure the right mix between face to face and electronically mediated learning, between innovation and mainstreaming agendas and between resource development, staff and student support and hardware/technical infrastructure requirements.

A useful outcome of the project was the development of a framework and a set of guiding questions to facilitate informed decision making about future uses of digital technologies within a university context.

Longer term outcomes or impact of the study have yet to be realised, but it is hoped that specific recommended strategies such as the introduction of teaching and technology roundtables, University commissioned projects to address institutional goals and priorities, and further research into identified areas of need, will enable QUT to take full academic advantage of the potential of digital technologies well into the next century.


Adams, S. (1997) "Life-long learning and hypermedia: What are the stakeholders learning?", AusWeb97, The Third Australian World Wide Web Conference, 5-9 July 1997, Gold Coast.

Alessi, S. (1996) Seeking Common Ground: Our Conflicting Viewpoints about Learning and Technology, available online at

Alexander, S. and Blight, D. (1996) Technology in International Education, A Research Paper presented to the 10th Australian International Conference, Technologies for the New Millennium, 3 October, 1996, Adelaide, Australia.

Gilbert, S. (1996) Vision, Path, Support, AAHEGIST, online discussion.

Green, K. and Gilbert, S. (1995) " Great Expectations, Content, Communications, Productivity, and the Role of Information Technology in Higher Education." Change, March / April 1995, 221- 231.

Harasim, L., Hiltz, S., Teles, L and Turoff, M. (1995) Learning, Networks, A Field Guide to Teaching and Learning Online. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press.

Pennell, R. (1996) Managing Online Learning, AusWeb96, The Second Australian World Wide Web Conference available online at

Rossiter, D. (1995) "Open Access, Audiographics and Higher Degree Study: An Investigation of Pedagogical Issues, Interim Findings" in Halliwell, G., (1996) Open Access, Audiographics and Higher Degree Study: Pedagogy and Other Issues, Final Report, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane.

Yetton, P. and Associates (1997) Managing the Introduction of Technology in the Delivery and Administration of Higher Education, Evaluations and Investigations Program, Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs. Available online at



(c) Darien Rossiter


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