Fear, loathing and ideology: Why academics resist edtech

COVID-19 accelerated the digitalisation of the higher education landscape. Despite some reports of innovation, the rapid shift to online teaching led to a period of high stress for many higher education institutions and teachers. Forced to suddenly embrace educational technology (edtech), university teachers often experienced steep learning curves, having previously limited experience in this area as well as lacking institutional support and technical resources.

In a research project from the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society and the FernUniversität in Hagen, my colleagues and I investigated how these negative experiences and associations led to some staff members resisting edtech.

Through our interviews with 68 university staff members working at eight European universities, we identified practical, emotional and pedagogical motivations that fuelled resistant responses towards edtech.

What does resistance to edtech look like?

The most commonly recognised resistant behaviours are likely those considered most dramatic, such as arguing and refusing to participate. For instance, we may imagine university teachers forming picket lines demanding a return to in-person teaching.

However, resistance research includes studying more subtle forms of resistance; for example, avoiding change, ignoring it, undermining it or waiting it out. In our interviews, we found that more subtle forms of resistance were more commonplace, such as investing minimal effort in engaging with technology, discrediting its quality and waiting for the pandemic to be over.

For instance, interviewees often described an underlying disapproval of edtech, as it was considered inferior to in-person teaching. A university manager working at a large British research university remarked: “There has been a culture shift in favour of doing things with digital technology, but there’s still resistance; a lot of that is primarily about the campus centrism and the privilege of presence. There’s still this perception that online is second best in some way.”

Statements such as these led us to question: Where do these negative perceptions come from? What is driving university teachers to resist edtech?

Personal ideologies

Often these subtle forms of resistance were tied to personal ideologies about teaching or institutional values as illustrated in the quote from a university teacher working at a German research university: “With corona[virus], it was a forced changeover from one day to the next, which is still not easy for us. Well, not for me ... because it contradicts my idea of the university. The university is about discourse and discussion with individuals and groups. And under digital conditions, that only takes place with great restrictions. So that’s no longer possible.”

This instructor voiced a common concern among our interviewees, namely that online teaching prevented them from fully engaging with their students as it limited space for active and engaging discussion. For many teachers, especially those working in social sciences, discussion was considered a cornerstone of university education.

Change triggers negative emotions

Resistance can also be the outward manifestation of an individual’s emotional response to change. For some teachers edtech evoked fear: some were afraid of appearing incompetent in front of students while others feared the use of edtech would diminish their authority and expertise.

In the quote below, a faculty administrator, working at a mid-size German university, describes the multifaceted nature of this fear of edtech: “There is a real fear among teachers [concerning edtech] of losing their positions. When you understand digital teaching as a canned product, which some people still do, that is, a lecture recording can simply be played back over and over again for the next five years.

“If you’re stuck with that concept, then there’s the feeling that you lose control, that you’re just not important ... I think that actually scares a lot of people ... they are afraid of losing their positions [and] that others will be able to copy or evaluate what they have done.”

Moreover, fear of using edtech was associated by many teachers with increased workload. Teachers explained that teaching online meant redesigning courses, a task that took considerable time and effort and was often not understood or recognised by university management.

A faculty administrator from an Estonian university describes this dilemma of extra work without acknowledgment: “Although we all understand the need [to use edtech], we don’t really want to change. Teachers do not want to change because it’s enormously time-consuming and requires enormous effort. ... [Also] there is no motivation to change. And why? Because our university values research, and teaching is not valued.”

Thus, extra work and lack of prioritisation from the university contributes to negative associations with edtech.

Challenges to autonomy

Change-resistance at the university is not a new phenomenon and may be explained by the socialisation of professors and the university structure. As highly skilled specialists, professors have been socialised to value academic freedom as well as protect their own spheres of influence: teaching and research. Thus, top-down change can be perceived as an infringement upon professorial autonomy to determine course formats and content.

Autonomy is also embedded in the structure of the university, which has been referred to by organisational theorist Karl E Weick as “loosely coupled” – composed of weakly connected subunits. This conceptualisation also resonates with the notion that universities do not have a singular culture, but rather consist of multiple ‘cultures’ or ‘subcultures’, which are drawn along disciplinary, departmental and-or faculty lines, each equipped with their own practices.

These structural and social features create an environment that is at best complex, and at worst, critical and even suspicious of top-down change. Against this background, the push for edtech during the pandemic unsurprisingly led to a push back from university staff.

Understanding complexity

Resistance to change has traditionally been viewed as a barrier to overcome. Classified as a problem, energy is often invested in finding solutions for it, such as how to win over or penalise offenders. However, such responses only address the surface layer of a deeper sense-making process that is occurring.

Change brought through edtech challenges deeply held ideologies and identities surrounding teaching, the classroom experience and the purpose of the university.

Understanding the complexity of resistance and the different emotions that feed into it is an important first step. Moving forward, we can rethink our associations with resistance and instead see it as an opportunity to learn more about the individual teacher behind the technology and about the role technology can play in supporting existing social practices.

Melissa Laufer is a senior researcher at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG), Berlin, Germany. This article draws on data collected in the research project, Organisational Adaptivity in the German Higher Education Context, a cooperation between the HIIG and the FernUniversität in Hagen, Center of Advanced Technology for Assisted Learning and Predictive Analytics (CATALPA).