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IT in higher education column: A retrospective

Roger Atkinson

The most common use of 'retrospective', at least in my mind, is as a descriptor for a collection selected from an artist's lifetime work. Having just recently visited our Art Gallery of WA to view Sidney Nolan's entire Ned Kelly series (on tour from the Australian National Gallery) [1], my enthusiasm for a 'retrospective' has been rekindled. Of course the Kelly series does not represent the whole of Nolan's lifetime work; it is merely a great pinnacle in his lifetime journey [2]. Nevertheless I'll take some liberties and use 'retrospective' for that exhibition, and also for this much humbler, less dramatic musing. Retrospective is great word, seemingly related to 'introspective', to 'perspective', and to 'retro', for which one interpretation is as a code word for a revival of a style that existed a generation or two ago. So 'intro', 'per' and 'retro' are my 'spectives' and organisers for this musing which concludes, or signs off, or logs out, from a series I commenced 14 years ago in 2004 after an invitation from the late Roger Landbeck [3]. Fourteen years? A long time, considering that Nolan dashed off the Kelly paintings in just two years, 1946-47 (though, unlike me, he was not in retirement, as I was from mid-2001).

To begin with the 'introspective' part. It's not a matter of 'exhibiting' all 35 of my IT in higher education columns, it's more like a looking inwards, for the personal and the wider, extrinsic reasons why the writing was motivated. On the personal reasons, I have a long standing admiration for Richard Winter's (1996) eloquent summary of purpose [4]:

'...writing up a report is an act of learning and in this sense, we write for ourselves so that, when we read what we have written, we find out what, in the end, we have learned.' [4, p.21]
Looking back through the 34 previous columns, I'm very aware that much of the purpose could be characterised as writing for myself. The first column, in HERDSA News 26(3) [5], is illustrative. Its recurring theme of marginal costs approaching zero, applied to the core foundations of the IT revolution, information storage, digital network transport, and digital search processes, was a 'writing up' of my experiences, and from that I learnt more. Whilst 'writing up' is a very familiar component of learning, from early primary school to PhD thesis submission, and beyond, the context for Richard Winter's quotation was 'investigating professional experience'. In particular, Winter's phrase (1996), 'the process of attempting to have new thoughts about familiar experiences' [4, p.10], aptly matched what I sought to do.

After the first column in 2004, many other columns similarly embodied much learning by 'writing up'. Often my 'learning journey' was documented with lengthy reference lists, as in HERDSA News 32(3) [6], the 'Tier Review' column, which had 1822 words in the body text, and 451 words in the list of 28 references, nearly all including a URL. This learning extended widely beyond textbook-like expositions of technologies, for a reason emphasised in 32(3):

'... I have to acknowledge that much of what is happening in educational technology per se is not especially interesting. Sometimes, for me at least, there is too much hype about topics like Gen Y, digital natives, killer applications, iThis and eThat, and so on. What is often more interesting is how various people react to, accommodate, adopt or employ educational technologies (or fail to properly ..., as the case may be).'
However, writing for myself was always complemented by an extrinsic purpose: communicating knowledge and insights that may be helpful to others, and perhaps at least a little influential in contemporary discourses relating to higher education and to academic research. The examples found in The Conversation [7], which proclaims 'Academic rigour, journalistic flair', set a standard I admire. Among the contemporary issues represented in my IT columns, perhaps the most notable was the ill-fated attempt by the Australian Research Council to impose its 'Four tiers' method of valuing research work. In HERDSA News and other avenues, mainly AJET Editorials, I sought to draw attention to the silliness of attempting to assess the value of research work through some perception of the prestige of the 'outlet' (journal) in which it was published. I hoped to have my phrases 'Blood, sweat and four tiers', and 'Tier review process' widely repeated.

Among numerous other contemporary issues, some columns sought to accord greater attention to Australian innovations, in educational technology and innovative pedagogies, often in the context of links with events outside the realm of research into higher education. In this genre, 'Free Wi-Fi everywhere!', HERDSA News 37(3) [8] linked an Australian hitech innovation, Wi-Fi, to campus-wide free Wi-Fi now provided at all Australian universities, and to Europe's 2015 summer and autumn refugee crisis, concluding with a bold new pro-refugee message (ignored), 'Come to the country where Wi-Fi was invented! Tech-savvy youth especially welcome. University and technical college scholarships available. Tap HERE to apply for Australia!'. Also in this genre, HERDSA News 37(1) [9] asked the question, 'Can we learn anything from an edtech journal archive?', offering new thoughts about three notable Australian and New Zealand edtech innovations. A plea about the need for a broader appreciation of what constituted an innovation appeared in 'University educators are innovators too!', HERDSA News 38(2) [10], expressing my resentment (and resentment from many others) towards the Australian Government's then newly hatched National Innovation and Science Agenda.

Turning to the 'perspectives' part, the IT perspective was never a constant; it changed over my years, often quite rapidly, as may be illustrated by reference to two of my favourites for interpretive frameworks (which some call 'theories'), namely Rogers' Diffusion of innovations [11], and TPCK (technological, pedagogical and content knowledge). Using the Rogers' framework, in earlier times, late 1980s to mid 1990s, attention centred on the first two of his five categories of adopters, innovators and early adopters, whilst present day attention is more concerned with attending to the laggards, and the refining of practices amongst the early majority and the late majority. Expressed in another way, earlier practices reflected searches for ways to make an innovation work, and to disseminate it, whilst current practices reflect ways to refine and improve systems in which almost everyone is an adopter. Reflecting upon the TPCK framework, I feel that over the years the 'primacies' have become more balanced, firstly with more importance being accorded to technological, then more recently, much more importance being accorded to pedagogical knowledge [12].

The IT perspective in these columns also sought to represent a diversity of topics, though academic publishing became well-represented, in response to the very great impact that IT advances have had upon academic journals, books and communications. However, research methods have been included, as in 'Can we trust web based surveys?', HERDSA News 29(3) [13]; and in my whimsical comment on methods for finding research time, 'Burning the midnight oil', HERDSA News 35(1) [14]. Of the many topics in publishing, open access was always a favourite, and an inspiration, including, for example, 'Open educational resources', HERDSA News 39(1) [15]; 'Textbooks free and online!' in 37(2) [16]; 'E-theses: Will online change the thesis tradition? in 31(1) [17]; and the problem of 'open access article publishing charges enabling a dark side?' in 35(3) [18]. As an aside, my writing for this 'retrospective' is being done during Open Access Week [19], a decade old international series.

Finally, I need to explain why I characterised the 'retro' part as 'a code word for a revival of a style that existed a generation or two ago'. Could my style of viewing IT in higher education become 'retro', that is, not being kept properly representative of the very diverse range of contemporary IT topics? Well, that is a risk, but the main reason for moving on from IT is to engage more intensively with new fields. Still on a learning journey (75 next month!), I want to reserve more time for IIER journal [20] matters, where my attention now centres on inclusivity towards non-Western contexts and ESL authors in educational research journal publishing. In this quite different field, the role of technology is relatively minor as a research topic (though truly vital as tools and infrastructure). As to the learning journey, IIER is a generalist journal, encompassing a wide range of educational research topics, making it very suitable for one with a predilection for never-ending, lifelong learning journeys.

With thanks for the gently persuasive reminders provided by the late Roger Landbeck and thereafter by Maureen Bell, I'll sign off .... Cheers, Roger.


  1. Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly Series. 11 August - 12 November 2018. AGWA.
  2. Sidney Nolan Trust (2017). The Nolan 100.
  3. HERDSA. Roger Landbeck.
  4. Winter, R. (1996). Some principles and procedures for the conduct of action research. In O. Zuber-Skerritt (Ed), New directions in action research. London: Farmer.
  5. Atkinson, R. J. (2004). Technology interactions: Scholarly publishing. HERDSA News, 26(3), 19-21.
  6. Atkinson, R. J. (2010). ARC announces a Tier Review Process. HERDSA News, 32(3).
  7. The Conversation.
  8. Atkinson, R. J. (2015). Free Wi-Fi everywhere! HERDSA News, 37(3).
  9. Atkinson, R. J. (2015). Can we learn anything from an edtech journal archive? Creative innovations and AJET 1985-2007. HERDSA News, 37(1).
  10. Atkinson, R. J. (2016). University educators are innovators too! HERDSA News, 38(2).
  11. Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations, 5th ed. Simon & Schuster. For a brief outline, see
  12. Koehler, M. J. & Mishra, P. (2009). What is technological, pedagogical and content knowledge? CITE Journal, 9(1), 60-70.
  13. Atkinson, R. J. (2007). Can we trust web based surveys? HERDSA News, 29(3).
  14. Atkinson, R. J. (2013). "Burning the midnight oil": Time and date stamps on email for a conference publishing activity. HERDSA News, 35(1).
  15. Atkinson, R. J. (2017). OER: Open educational resources revisited. HERDSA News, 39(1).
  16. Atkinson, R. J. (2015). Textbooks free and online! What are our universities doing? HERDSA News, 37(2).
  17. E-theses: Will online change the thesis tradition? HERDSA News, 31(1).
  18. Atkinson, R. J. (2013). Academic journals: Are open access article publishing charges enabling a dark side? HERDSA News, 35(3).
  19. Open Access Week.
  20. Issues in Educational Research (IIER).
Author: Roger Atkinson retired from Murdoch University in June 2001. His current activities include honorary work on Issues in Educational Research, and other academic conference support and publishing activities. Website (including this article in html format):

Note: The version presented here is longer than the print published version, as it includes references that were omitted for space constraint reasons.

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. J. (2019). IT in higher education column: A retrospective. HERDSA Connect, 41(1).

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