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Lost in Translation: Getting teachers and techies talking

Christina Smart & Sarah Holyfield
Last modified 06 Dec, 2005
Published 08 Nov, 2005
A report from the Connecting Teachers and Technologists (Joint CETIS Enterprise SIG and CETIS Pedagogy Forum) meeting held in Manchester in the 18th October 2005. The focus of this meeting was on developing an understanding between the two communities and looking at the question of how teaching and learning can more closely inform technical developments.

Until relatively recently those involved in developing and providing the enterprise systems that underpin the IT infrastructure of an educational organisation, and those involved directly in teaching, have been able to co-exist relatively separately. It is widely recognised that these two groups as well as having different perspectives, speak completely different languages, however the maturing of e-learning means that they are under increasing pressure to work more closely together. The widespread use of VLE systems has raised many pedagogical and technical issues concerning the tools that are needed to support e-learning, and what this means for the enterprise systems that must exchange data with these tools.

This event was organised by Vashti Zarach co-ordinator of the CETIS Enterprise Special Interest Group and Lisa Corley co-ordinator of the CETIS Pedagogy Forum and ourselves from the e-Learning Programme support team. Vashti and Lisa kicked off the meeting by introducing the ideas for the day [1]. The agenda had been organised with a series of short talks from both teachers and developers which introduced a number of projects and case studies. There was an opportunity in the afternoon to explore the differences between the perspectives and priorities of the teacher and technologist communities.

The delegate introductions revealed that the meeting had attracted a cross-section of technologists and teachers, (although many more of the former than the latter) and many with a foot in both camps. Some were intrigued by the title of the event.

The World of Enterprise

Vashti went on to introduce the work of the Enterprise SIG and gave a brief history of the specifications and projects that the SIG had highlighted. Enterprise is the part of e-learning that deals with the transfer of data between student records systems and VLEs. To illustrate why Enterprise is important to teachers and learners Vashti presented two scenarios; one for Jemima, a student at Disintegration University and one for Toby, a student at Enterprise college, and the impact of the management of their student data on their student experiences [2].

Brockenhurst e-Registers Toolkit (BERT)

Jon Rowett, a regular speaker from the Enterprise SIG, spoke about projects at Brockenhurst FE College where they have developed VLE and registration systems using web services. Jon emphasised the importance of monitoring systems in FE where many students have recently left school and require more support. The MLE they developed for the college called EMILY included classroom support, a popular messaging system and even a portal for parents to check whether their children were attending classes! The team went on to develop BERT, a JISC toolkit. The aim with both these systems is to make the management of classes easier and more immediate for teachers, which frees up time for them to focus on the session [3].

Teachers and Technologists; it’s good to talk

In his talk Mark introduced the two halves of Mark Stubbs, the teacher who is interested in the effect that using a VLE can have on teaching his students, and the technologist who is interested in unpacking the black box to see how data is being transferred around systems. What he argues for is a "creative dialogue" between these two groups. Mark introduced a case study of a first year course in “Emerging Technologies” for 200 students at Manchester Metropolitan University. The course was re-designed putting intended outcomes at the heart of the course philosophy. The principles they used were:

  • the tutor as the expert as last resort
  • attention to detail
  • regular engagement
  • the demonstration of learning outcomes

Having discussed the gulf between teachers and technologists Mark went on to discuss Moore’s analysis of technology adoption and the chasm that appears in this process. He applied it to e-learning and illustrated the gap between those teachers who are early adopters of technologies (enthusiasts), and the pragmatists who want robust technologies to be made available to be used in their teaching. Mark's slides provide an entertaining and clear exploration of this process. [4]

He suggested ways in which creative dialogue could be achieved between different communities by surfacing assumptions, replacing “yes-but” with “yes – and”, and by emphasizing the importance of opportunities to build networks across communities.

The two halves of Mark Stubbs - the teacher and the techie

The two halves of Mark Stubbs - the teacher and the techie

The World of Pedagogy

Lisa Corley introduced the work of the Pedagogy Forum which considers the impact of e-learning specifications on teaching and learning, and the need for these to meet educational needs as well as fulfilling technical requirements.

The Forum has held joint meetings with many of the CETIS special interest groups, bringing communities together to consider topics like Learning Design, and this meeting formed a part of this series.

The key questions for the Pedagogy Forum are:

  • With the increasing use of learning technology, how will this affect teaching and learning practice?
  • What role do standards play in the development (and use) of learning technologies?
  • What are the limitations and opportunities which arise when standards are applied?
  • As the technologies evolve, how can these support various educational models, and vice versa?

Lisa concluded by introducing the Pedagogical Vocabularies project which is currently gathering vocabularies used to describe teaching and learning and exploring how they can be used to address communication issues between teachers and technologists[5].

The Making Tracks project: Bridging the Chasm

Steve Jeyes described the Making Tracks project which has produced a games-based simulation for exploring the mathematical concept of V trails. The project was one of the JISC toolkit demonstrator projects taking the ISIS simple sequencing toolkit and applying it to the NRICH mathematics curriculum developed at Cambridge University. Steve demonstrated the simulation and explained how students had to solve V trail problems on different planets and draw out the principals of the problems before they could move on to another “planet” with another set of problems.

He was very enthusiastic about the idea of explorative games-based educational environments and how Simple Sequencing could be "used creatively to help a learner". He discussed the challenges and problem areas, and illustrated the third chasm of the day with some wonderful pictures of bridges illustrating the gulf between what is possible in making educational tools (Bristol Suspension bridge) and what is feasible (a footbridge) [6].

Mind the Gap: Bridging the two communities

Sarah Holyfield introduced the afternoon discussion session. She reflected on the three chasms introduced in the morning session, and discussed why the development of more flexible systems using service oriented approaches will require a creative dialogue between teachers and technologists. Participants were divided into two groups – people with a primarily teaching focus and those who would describe themselves as technologists. Interestingly, at least twice as many people identified themselves as technologists compared with teachers. The groups were introduced to a fictional scenario at the University of the West Coast where a new vice chancellor had set up an institutional task group to develop a new 5 year strategy for e-learning. Each group was asked to prepare a presentation for the task group to:

  • Explain what they wanted to do be able to do and what they would like the role of technology to be (teachers)
  • Make a case for a service oriented approach for systems integration (technologists)

The two groups took it in turns to prepare their presentation, and while one group discussed the issues the other group observed and wrote down any unfamiliar terms, and thoughts an ideas that had not occurred to them before.

The exercise led to a long and interesting discussion about the different perspectives of the two groups.[7]

What do teachers want to be able to do with technology?

The teachers wanted flexibility, and for systems to give them freedom to experiment and express ideas and communications. They wanted systems that would "enable a recognition of learners as individuals". At the same time they felt that teachers needed “martini support” (anytime anywhere) and to be able to trust the technology [8].

Why technologists think a service oriented approach is a good idea

In their presentation the technologists discussed the benefits of SOA. They felt it was about supporting flexible systems and being able to build on existing systems in a cost effective way. Problems for administrators arise because - in the process of expressing their academic freedom – teachers frequently give insufficient requirements for systems, and often change their minds about what they want. The technologists suggested that one strategy for allowing teachers and developers to work very closely together to develop systems might be by establishing extreme programming teams.[9]

Teacher and Technologist Reflections

Both groups were asked to consider the words and ideas that were unfamiliar to them – this discussion highlighted some interesting differences between the groups. For the technologists new expressions included ‘personality profiling’, and ‘fish bowling’, and the technologists used many acronyms the teachers hadn’t heard before including MIS, API, and IMS. New expressions included ‘rapid prototyping’ and ‘extreme programming’

From their comment sheets -

Technologists were concerned with how learners were changing -

Learners are entering education with differing levels of skills in light of the changing curriculum for pre-FE and HE. We don’t know what out learners will be like in 5 years time. This makes it hard for academics to plan for.

and the variety of approaches to teaching they need to support –

There appears to be no clarity – the lecturers differ greatly in their backgrounds. How can we capture inspirational teaching? What are their pedagogic methods?


What do they actually want? What should we be developing?

From the teachers’ point of view there were clearly anxieties about the lack of understanding between the communities -

Even when teachers and technologists are sympathetic there may still be a vast gap between them (ditto teachers and administrators).


Technologist led developments are a threat to adoption of appropriate well-fitted (to student need) learning and teaching methods.

One teacher wrote that it had never occurred to them that:

IT support is interested in why academic staff are uninterested in using systems.

Ideas for the future

The final session of the day explored possible follow up projects and activities. Suggestions included:

  • A guide to implementing SOA in 5 easy steps
  • Developing simpler interfaces and tools
  • Hands-on events where teachers can play with new e-tools
  • A portfolio of system designs for teachers to choose from

Lost in translation?

The event was an interesting experiment in getting two groups of people together that would not normally meet. It was the first CETIS event for many of the attendees and many had said they enjoyed the mix of short talks and discussion which highlighted the different perspectives.

It was disappointing, but not surprising, that there were so few teachers at the meeting. Lecturers in HE and tutors in FE rarely have the opportunity to attend these sorts of events, the pressures of the Research Assessment Exercise in HE, and teaching loads in FE, are often cited as reasons and are well known as obstacles. There is however a need for teachers to be involved in the process of technology development because otherwise their needs and requirements will not be adequately met.

The answer? Ideas offered in the discussions included on a small scale - extreme programming with multidisciplinary teams made up of developers, teachers and learning technologists, and on a large scale - a review of funding at a national level to allow those teachers who want to be involved in projects the time and opportunity to get involved. Whilst these may provide a couple of practical responses, the experience of many initiatives over the last few years suggests that the issue of bringing these communities together actually raises more profound institutional, organisational and policy level questions.

One event can’t possibly find solutions to all the communication problems that exist between these two distinct communities – but more events like this, both on an institutional and national level, could help us to develop a greater mutual understanding, and help teachers and technologists to face the challenge of developing pedagogically appropriate tools and systems to support e-learning. And this ‘creative dialogue’ may help reduce the danger of ideas becoming lost in translation.


[1] Introduction - Vashti Zarach and Lisa Corley's introduction to the event

[2] The World of Enterprise Vashti also elaborates these ideas in an article on this site

[3] Brockenhurst e-Registers Toolkit, Jon Rowett's presentation

[4] Teachers and Technologists; its good to talk, Mark Stubb's presentation

[5] The world of Pedagogy Lisa Corley's introduction to the work of the Pedagogy Forum

[6] The Making Tracks project, Bridging the Chasm presentation given by Steve Jeyes

[7] The introduction to the Map the Gap discussion session presentation, this includes the notes taken during the final discussion including ideas for the future

[8] The presentation produced by the Teacher group nb - these are the notes taken during the session - not a final presentation - included here for interest

[9] The presentation produced by the Technology group nb - these are the notes taken during the session - not a final presentation - included here for interest


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