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Going the distance: e-learning expert says we still have a way to go

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Distinguished Professor of e-Learning Niki Davis’s stellar career in e-learning has taught her there is cause for both optimism and caution as education evolves further and faster into online spaces.

Her internationally focused work has earned her the notable title of Professor Emerita on the eve of her retirement from the University of Canterbury (UC), the latest in a long list of accolades.

There have been many changes since she started out as a ‘professor of educational telematics’ in 1995 at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

"That was my choice of words," she says. "We didn't have e-learning then, we didn't have the web. That didn't come in for quite a while. What we had was informatics - the teaching of computer science."

‘Informatics’ and ‘telecommunications’ were mashed together, and ‘telematics’ was the result.

"The word was just emerging in Europe at the time. And that was where I was focusing my international work at that stage. So, yes, I became the first female professor of educational telematics."

Since then, Distinguished Professor Davis has led e-learning and teacher education research as Professor of ICT at the prestigious Institute of Education at the University of London, Director of the Center for Technology in Learning and Teaching at Iowa State University, and Professor of e-Learning at UC from 2008 - where she was named the first Distinguished Professor in the College of Education, Health and Human Development.

She was surprised to find the College at the forefront of e-learning globally, although its innovations were "largely unsung, and probably still are", Distinguished Professor Davis says.

While it’s easy to get excited about e-learning - with virtual field trips, and workshops attended by students at a distance as well as on campus now commonplace in the College - there are challenges that concern her.

For some time she has been thinking about the cultural inclusiveness of online spaces: "What makes for successful, inclusive environments for Māori and for Pasifika? My Samoan colleague [PhD student] Saili Lemalu Aukuso would start a meeting with a prayer in Samoan. Māori also use a lot of prayer as well as song. So how do we replicate that in online spaces?"

Another challenge is helping teachers to choose from all the possibilities of online and blended learning. "I have felt this for years. So I'm in the middle of teaching something and I'm thinking: ‘that would be better on an online platform and this would be better right now. And how will I blend the two so that they work well together?’ But we’ve still only got 24 hours in the day.

"Preparing an old-fashioned lecture is relatively easy and it’s extremely economical, both in terms of time and effort, because there’s one person putting in most of the effort. The others are listening. So how do you use your time so that you get through the curriculum? You redesign the curriculum, so that it works.

"There are many more things that still need to be sorted out, and always will do, because education is always evolving."

Another concern is about sustainability - of people and the planet.

"We’re probably not thinking carefully enough about using technology in a way that will be eco-friendly. That's more expensive. Disposing of technologies is hard and yet, everybody wants us to buy the next new thing."

And on the hot topic of teens on screens, Distinguished Professor Davis acknowledges the challenges of helping teens self-manage how long they spend online and what they watch.

"Our young people are vulnerable and we can’t always be there to check on them, so from an early age they have to learn how to use technology to facilitate their learning, as well as for entertainment and wellbeing."

She remains optimistic, however. "I think we're very, very fortunate in the times in which we live."

At UC, Distinguished Professor Davis spearheaded the establishment of the E-learning Research Lab as a hub of joint inquiry, which has engaged staff and attracted doctoral students to create a globally recognised scholarly community at UC.

Over her career she has won research funding of over £3.9 million, US$2million and over NZ$2million.

If there is an award she is most proud of, she says: "I guess it was the Society of IT and Teacher Education Award for Outstanding Service to Digital Equity in Teacher Education; that really encapsulated what I'd been trying to do as I was leading the society. I moved to the United States for a decade in order to lead such an influential group and raise the profile of research from other parts of the world."

Emeritus status is an acknowledgement of significant scholarly and academic contributions to a specific field and institution.

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