A helicopter view of learning technology implementation across a university

by Dr Rachel Forsyth, Lund University, Sweden.

Readers who have worked with learning technologies for a long time know that the excitement of working with new tools which may make teaching and learning more fun, efficient, or inclusive is often tempered by the challenges of supporting an extensive and effective implementation. I asked Bing Chat what it would be like if Sisyphus was trying to implement a new learning technology in a modern university, and I have to admit that the output made me laugh quite a lot, particularly alongside the images I asked it to create to go with it:

  • Sisyphus has to convince the faculty and staff to adopt the new technology, but they are resistant to change and prefer the old methods. He has to explain the benefits and features of the new technology over and over again, but they always find some flaw or excuse to reject it. He feels like he is rolling a heavy rock up a hill only to have it roll back down every time he makes some progress. 
  • Sisyphus has to train the students and teachers on how to use the new technology, but they are confused and overwhelmed by the complexity and variety of the tools. He has to answer the same questions and solve the same problems repeatedly, but they never seem to learn or remember. He feels like he is rolling a heavy rock up a hill only to have it roll back down every time he teaches something new. 
  • Sisyphus has to maintain and update the new technology, but he faces constant technical issues and glitches. He has to fix the bugs and errors that occur frequently, but they always reappear or cause new problems. He feels like he is rolling a heavy rock up a hill only to have it roll back down every time he fixes something. 

(image source: Bing Chat, November 2023)

But of course, such a characterisation sets up a silly binary where IT visionaries are on one side and users who don’t know what’s best for them are on the other. In reality, we all work for the same organisation and we need to find solutions that everyone wants to use, rather than imagine that we should always go for the latest tool which seems self-evidently fabulous to some of us. In 2013, Sheila MacNeill called the urge to chase the newest thing “ the Dory complex”, after a character in the Finding Nemo film series. Ever since I read her blog post, I have tried to stop myself chasing after “the shiny” and focus on what we need to do, now, to make things work better for students and staff.

In that context, it was an amazing gift to be invited to lead a project to make an inventory and an analysis of the impact of digital tools and initiatives on pedagogical development work across a large university. This was a chance to get an overview of what is working in relation to introduction and application of learning technologies, and ensure that we develop the system to be responsive to colleagues’ needs, feelings about technology, and availability, and provided compelling reasons for adoption in their own context. Sometimes we simply have to impose the same system on everyone for reasons of scale (e.g. a new Virtual Learning Environment/Learning Management System), but everything is so much better if we can bring colleagues with us and support them to adapt it to their needs.

I had just got to the point of planning a framework for implementing digital tools, when gift number 2 arrived in my lap: ChatGPT! It has made a fantastic case study for technology adoption, even though it was entirely unplanned. It is too early to say if what we have done has worked effectively, but the key elements of our approach have been:

  1. Emphasise existing expertise and educational purposes: all of our teachers know how to plan and teach courses. If these tools help in any of their regular tasks, great. If not, don’t use them! (unless they also like shiny things, of course).  
  2. Delegate all academic decision-making to programme teams. The choice to use these tools is not an administrative decision, it is academic. Does it help the students to achieve the intended learning outcomes? Does it improve student engagement or accessibility? Can it save teachers’ or students’ time? As learning technologists and educational developers, we need to identify credible examples and communicate them.
  3. Talk about the societal and practical concerns and challenges. There may be ethical reasons not to do something, and we need to have open debate and discussion.
  4. There are never too many channels of communication: we need webpages, online courses (see Martin Compton’s in last month’s newsletter, but we made our own, too), Teams channels, webinar programmes, and a willingness to get out to every department who invites us, and tailor the discussion to them.


Dr Rachel Forsyth, PFHEA is a senior pedagogical developer at the Unit for Educational Services, Lund University and author of Confident Assessment in Higher Education (2022), available from Sage.