The aim of this blog

This is one of several blogs that explore the question: is e-learning failing in higher education? (See Is e-learning failing in higher education?, and Expectations and goals for e-learning for the context for this question.)

Enhancing the quality of teaching and learning

This is the second of the goals listed for e-learning:

2. To enhance the general quality of teaching/learning.

I think this is the most questionable of the goals, for reasons that I will explain.

The main form of e-learning?

I will be the first to admit that it is difficult to find good data on the extent to which technology is being used to ‘enhance’ the quality of teaching/learning. The OECD 2005 study used the terms ‘web supplemented – ws’ and ‘web dependent – wd’, both of which might include the enhancement of learning. These uses include:

  • course outlines, lecture notes, e-mail, links to external resources -ws
  • online discussions, assesments, collaborative project-work, without signifcant reduction of class time – wd

I used to use data from surveys done by WebCT (2003) which clearly showed that the main use of WebCT was for ‘enhancing classroom teaching’. We have seen that fully online learning is increasing, so there may be some inroads being made into using technology as an enhancement. However, anecdotal evidence from LMS managers and data extracted from LMSs more recently suggest that enhancing classroom teaching is still the major use of LMSs.  My belief, then, is that this is still the most significant use of information and communications technology in post-secondary education.

However, few institutions actually collect data in a way that enables the clear identification of different types of e-learning. If anyone has this data, or can point to published work that shows such data, please share this! After all, if it is the most frequently used rationale for learning, shouldn’t we know its extent, and whether it’s increasing or decreasing?

The choice of wording

The choice of wording here is deliberate. I was working at one institution on a committee trying to set down the key goals or rationale for their use of e-learning. One colleague suggested: ‘to improve the quality of teaching.’ This was rejected by other members of the committee, who argued that the quality of the teaching was already excellent – technology would enhance it, but not improve it. This point interestingly was also made in a comment by Tom Preskett to my earlier blog Expectations and goals for e-learning, when he wrote:

‘I don’t talk about improving quality because of the connotation that the quality isn’t good at the moment. It’s worth saying, however, that I think the social, informal learning offered by Web 2.0 can and should improve the learning for everyone.’

For me, this is the core issue around e-learning. Can you really justify the high investment in technology if it is merely added on as an enhancement to what we already do? For instance, I have noted recently that lecture theatres or even small seminar rooms now have at least three screens – one on each side at the front of the room, and one in the middle so the lecturer can see what students are seeing. Certainly this enables everyone in the room to see what is going on, but nothing else changes. The teaching goals are the same, the student-teacher ratio is unaffected, and is there any suggestion that students will learn more because of this? Lecture capture is another example. Can the investment of US$6,000 a classroom be justified in terms of better learning? All we are doing is adding cost without any measurable benefits.

The quality of teaching and learning

This is the big question. Is the quality of teaching in our post-secondary institutions already of high quality and thus merely needs to be enhanced with technology (the icing on the cake), or is there major room for improvement in how we teach? This is the big divide, and really determines whether e-learning is successful or not.

My position on this is clear. Universities and colleges follow a form of teaching that is largely historical in origin, and which has not accommodated well to the major shift that has occurred as a result of opening up access to post-secondary education. It has accommodated even less well to the opportunities (or affordances) that new technology offers.

In support of the first point, universities in particular had an excellent teaching model for an elite system of higher education, when only a few students attended, and when the resources were more than adequate for teaching in the old way. I’m old enough to belong to this model. When I did undergraduate honours psychology at Sheffield University in England in 1962, less than 8 per cent of high school students went to university in Britain. However, I had in my two final years an instructor-student ratio of 1:3: four tenured professors and 12 students. We had lectures, small-group seminars and occasionally one-on-one tutorials. I had an excellent personal tutor, who involved me in his research, during my last undergraduate year

Now in the UK, 40 per cent of high school students go to university and in Canada the figure is over 50 per cent. The instructor-student ratio is around 1:20 in the research universities, and 1:30 in two year colleges. Some undergraduate courses in first and second year have over 1000 enrolments, and lectures, often given by foreign graduate students, are to classes of 250 or more. Many professors pine for the old days, but these have gone. I believe it was the right thing to do to expand access (another blog needed to do this topic justice for sure), but we have not changed the teaching model. We have just added technology to the old model. But what we need is a new model, that builds on the strengths and opportunities that technology provides, and, incidentally, builds on the tremendous research advances made since 1962 in understanding how students learn, and how best to teach.


Using technology to enhance learning merely increases costs without any measurable benefits. It does not address the need to change a teaching model that poorly serves mass higher education. It does not make the best use of technology. However, it may be a necessary first step to engage faculty. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that this will lead to more fundamental changes.

In another blog on improving the cost-effectiveness of teaching and learning, I will suggest some ways in which the teaching model should be changed to make better use of technology and to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

In the meantime, I will be interested to know whether you agree that the current teaching model is inadequate, and whether you believe that enhancing the current model with technology is a poor use of scarce resources.


  1. I do agree with you. The problem is the teaching model -and not only- the use of technology. The problem is what we teach, as well. The traditional teaching model is a one way ticket. We send a message and the pupils are supposed to catch it… They have to do to learn (learning by doing), we’d better use Project Based Learning (PjBL) and Problem Based Learning (PBL) to base our classroom work… And if we do so, technology will come to us in a very natural way. And, as I said before, the problem is what we teach as well. When we teach a unit/lesson on “equations” we are not saying the truth because real life problems need not only equations to solve real life problems… We have to work with problems and projects in a more integrated way, using multiple math tools (for instance), and learning how to use them and how to identify when to use them and how… The problem is that we are using a teaching model from 1000 d.c, a wrong model, a unidirectional model, a false model. Hello from Canary Islands, SPAIN. Carlos.

  2. I agree that the current teaching model is inadequate but I see the use of technology as a possible catalyst for change rather than a misuse of scarce funds. Using learning technologies forces a teacher to think about how they are teaching. This is the fundamental issue because eventually, good use of learning technology could lead educators to question and challenge traditional teaching model. It’s like when you present a tool to an academic. For the most part, they can think about what to do with it themselves. Once they do so with an open mind. The same can happen within education as a whole. It’s called learning. They just need to want to learn. Motivation is key and the motivation we need to have an education system designed to deliver the best learning experience rather than having other issues as the priority, e.g. assessment needs, curriculum needs, inspection criteria etc.

    It is true that the evidence is thin when it comes to ‘enhancing’ quality. But measuring quality is difficult in any context. I say “ask the learners”.

  3. As a student, I’ve seen how my professors incorporate technology into their classrooms. Aside from Blackboard and its tools and things like projectors and screens in the front of the classroom, very few have done things that I feel “fit” the students they teach – like you said, “We have just added technology to the old model.”

    College kids these days seem to be all about technology! We surround ourselves with it. A few of my professors have grasped this – one recorded each lecture and created pod casts for students that missed class or wanted to refer back to a particular lecture when studying for exams. This was simple for him to do and was great for the students.

    I’m not sure if I could claim that the current teaching model is inadequate (as I’m not an educator), but I do think that using technology isn’t a total waste of resources. Today we may not be able to have small group seminars or one-on-one tutorials, but the technology that we have could definitely help to improve student-teacher interactions and even create one-on-one situations (pod cast tutorials, automatic grading programs, etc.) These types of things, when online, can be accessed almost any time and anywhere, which is perfect for students that have their own schedules.

    I know I appreciate professors that take the time to make these types of tools available to me, and I can say that overall, they have enhanced my learning environment.

    Thanks for the interesting post!

  4. Tony-
    Thanks for all of your work/efforts here…especially with this series of postings. I will email you a copy of a paper I recently did for my Master’s Program at Capella University. I believe it addresses what you are getting at here…at least to some degree.

    To me, given the current landscapes, institutions of higher education must innovate in order to not have their products/services become a commodity. I believe we are in a game-changing environment whereby the online/networked learning world represents the best chance for students to engage in, participate in, and control their own learning experiences. Online-based content represents the best chance that I can see, at least as of June 2009, whereby a student has the opportunity to access high-quality materials that are created by a *team* of specialists.

    I haven’t seen that much innovation in the face-to-face world; and where I have seen it, it involves technology.

  5. It’s interesting that this discussion has not addressed the meaning of ‘quality’ in teaching and learning although a shared definition is essential to inform or assess any changes in teaching, with or without technology. (See Chapter 2 in Harvey & Knight’s book, ‘Transforming higher education’ for four very different interpretations of quality.) For purposes of full disclosure, teaching that facilitates deep and transformative learning seems to me to be the best definition of quality we have available, at least in terms of learning models which emphasize acquisition of cognitive skills and understanding.

    Perhaps the discussion also needs to differentiate different kinds or uses of technology, or do they all have similar transformative potential? For example, email and other web-based communication tools have made two-way communication with and among students much easier and might offset large class sizes, if instructors and students choose to use it for this purpose. Whether or not this improves quality depends on what the communication is about. Therein lies the problem: technology can aid conventional practices as easily as it might support innovations. In my experience, common technologies do not seem to ‘force’ instructors to rethink their practices in fundamental ways.

    I’d like to suggest two conditions for the change process to maximize the contributions that technology could make to enhancing / improving teaching quality.

    1. Research on faculty conceptions of teaching (eg Trigwell and Prosser) suggests that whether instructors understand teaching as ‘content delivery’ or as ‘facilitating learning’ is an important variable that mediates student learning. Differences in practice across this continuum may be subtle – using the example of asking questions in class, it is can be as much about why and how you implement a strategy than whether or not you use it all.
    If we hope for substantive changes in teaching, we must link technological tools with learning-centred conceptions of teaching.

    2. Ontario is in the early stages of implementing University Undergraduate Degree Level Expectations. These require faculty to think explicitly about how their course design, assessment strategies and teaching support students’ attainment of transferable skills (communication skills, limits of knowledge, autonomy and professional capacity). This is new territory for many and technology has a central role in enabling new practices to address these requirements. In my experience with this initiative, the focus on ‘new’ learning outcomes and assessment is more powerful for faculty than approaches motivated as enhancing teaching and learning for its own sake. It’s also a golden opportunity to strengthen partnerships between instructors, educational (faculty) developers and experts in educational technology.

  6. In my recent research published at, I noted how the UK came to this same conclusion quite some time ago. However, they still believe it CAN be more effective much like early experiments with medical surgery killed patients but rather than stop the practice, they eventually discovered the way to succeed. It may simply be that we haven’t figured out HOW to use the technology. As Thomas Friedman notes in his best seller “The World is Flat,” we are still in the infant stage of the Techno revolution; just beginning to get some hand-to-eye coordination. We’re just now at the end of the beginning. What’s next will be the paradigm shift needed to transform our experience in this regard.

  7. Hi, Tony. I just posted a response to a similar entry from Terry Anderson. We seem to be questioning the effectiveness of technology with learning. I wonder why we are still here after all these years of research and developement, but I am pleased we are not taking technology use of granted.

    I just finished my doctoral research about online learners (graduate students) in higher education and found they, in a sense, wanted campus based education replicated online. Are they lagging behind or are we imagining that technology affordances will transpose learning in new ways? I was quite surprised at the outcomes as I am a big tech fan!

    Our post is at:

  8. […] Colleges and universities have not changed the academics in their programs. Instead, only the way to teach students has changed. The article also added that since more students are attending school than ever before, he costs that comes with using technology has increased. The writer says that since the academics have not changed, then there isn’t really an advantage to use technology. I disagree with that statement because since the teacher to student ratio has increased, it would be significantly difficult to teach a classroom with the same quality as with the use of technology. […]


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