Digital Education at Edinburgh: Spotlight issue of Techtrends

In late 2013 the Digital Education group was invited to produce a spotlight issue of the journal TechTrends. This has just been published! You can find it here:

As Sian and I wrote in our editorial:

We were delighted to be invited to create a spotlight issue of TechTrends, bringing together research from the Digital Education research group at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. This group includes members involved in the online Masters in Digital Education programme, MOOC developments at the University of Edinburgh, including the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC, authors of the Manifesto for Teaching Online, as well as our Children and Technology group, and Learning Analytics strand.

The group is diverse, and this diversity is reflected in the contents of this spotlight issue. From app design for children with autism, to how reflection is changing in information-dense environments, to students’ views of academic writing in the digital age, to patterns of participation in MOOCs, this spotlight issue is held together not by a single theme or a topic, but by a shared curiosity about what is happening to learning and education as more and more of our experiences are mediated by digital practices and technologies.

The other key thing that brings the articles in this issue together is this: the authors strongly believe that those of us who are immersed in and excited by the possibilities of technology and education are uniquely placed to ask critical questions about it. As knowledgeable insiders, we can and must examine our own and others’ practices, and challenge assumptions and oversimplifications about educational change in a digital age. These papers share this critical take, and aim to treat emerging technology trends as a generative site for asking big questions.

One key source of big questions isbig data’. In this issue, Hamish Macleod, Jeff Haywood, Amy Woodgate and Mubarak Alkhatnai examine some common assumptions made about MOOCs, and find these are not always backed up by participation data from the University of Edinburgh’s massive courses. Jeremy Knox experimented with sensors to explore the boundaries between the human and non-human in the production of data, with interesting implications for future directions for learning analytics. Dragan Gašević, with his co-authors Shane Dawson and George Siemens, challenge the educational usefulness of measurement and prediction of student outcomes through learning analytics, where these analytics are not well-grounded in educational theory and practice. And big data of a different kind – the digital artifacts we collect and learn with – is the focus of Tim Fawns’ exploration of how we engage with information online. He argues that the scale of these collections, and their importance in our lives, now require approaches which combine selectivity and digital creativity to make reflection central to our strategies for coping with information overload.

Another important dimension of learning and technology is how established practice and theory might be challenged and changed by the incursions of the digital. Philippa Sheail argues that the taken-for-granted concept of the ‘meeting’ undergoes some profound transformations when applied to different sorts of digital environments. Andrew Manches, Pauline Duncan, Lydia Plowman and Shari Sabeti take a close look at the development of children’s games to incorporate them into an emerging Internet of Things (IoT). They examine how children engage with IoT-enabled toys linked to the popular games Skylanders and Disney Infinity, and reflect on the ethical and practical implications of changing children’s relationships with everyday things. Peter Evans’ research into professional learning in social media environments shows how these technologies challenge concepts of autonomy and learner control usually thought of as central to personalisation.

Finally, what is still emerging hasn’t yet become routine and invisible, and so can be particularly useful in defamiliarising our world as educators. Once things become ‘black-boxed’ (ref), they disappear from view, and examining new educational technologies, concepts and practices can sometimes crack that box open, letting us make the familiar productively strange. Christine Sinclair takes student perspectives on academic writing as a starting point for exploring the changes which might be coming in scholarship and rethinking the idea of ‘dialogue’ for a digital context. Sue Fletcher-Watson provides an analysis of the development of mobile applications for children with autism, questioning traditional relationships between researchers and developers in the process. She proposes ways for academic researchers, families and consumers, and commercial developers to work together to ensure that both the evaluation and development of these emerging technologies make use of the best available evidence.

As we have engaged as editors with the papers in this spotlight issue, we have come to feel that the different topics, approaches and concerns of our colleagues accurately reflect the richness and diversity of the field of digital education itself. Psychology, cultural studies, literature, sociology and organisation studies are all in evidence as disciplinary perspectives here. We hope that you will find, as we have, that this bringing together of perspectives is invigorating and inspiring, and offers you some fresh insights into your own matters of concern.