What students want and how universities are getting it wrong

I haven’t written for such a long time! I must have been working hard. Or something else.

Anyway, last Friday a piece of mine: “What students want and how universities are getting it wrong” was published in The Conversation, which as you can see, is an online news, commentary and analysis site by and for academics.

This article was professionally edited so as to fit the style of The Conversation, as well as word length. And I think it’s come out very well. The original article was intended to be a punchy, blunt piece of writing: to shake up some ideas, and to denounce a few sacred cows. The main sacred cow being, of course, the wondrous excellence of e-learning in all its guises. I’m not saying, you’ll notice, that e-learning is bad, just that it needs to be evaluated more rigorously than it has.

For you lucky readers of this blog, here is one version of the original – enjoy!

e-Learning: Universities are getting it wrong

Blended-learning! Digital natives! Virtual classrooms! Do these phrases fill you with joy and excitement, or instead the sort of ennui which comes from over-exposure to buzzwords? It’s my contention that many universities are approaching e-learning wrongly, expecting that somehow it will just happen, and that both staff and students will rapturously embrace this brave new world. (“How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world/ That has such people in’t!”, from “The Tempest”, William Shakespeare.)

Before I start my diatribe, let’s define e-learning, and this definition is as good as any: “E-learning is formally defined as lectronically mediated asynchronous and synchronous communication for the purposes of constructing and confirming knowledge.” (from “E-Learning in the 21st Century” D. Randy Garrison, Taylor & Francis, 2011). Note that this definition says “electronically”; some might prefer that this be replaced by “online”. Many of the comments I make here are of course not new; writing in the British Journal of Educational Technology in 2010, James Njenga and Louis Fourie take to task the “technopositivists”, those people who are uncritically committed to e-learning, but whose enthusiasm more reflects a personal agenda than any pedagogical basis, and whose main aim is to propagate an ideology. These authors comment on the work of previous authors, and approvingly note that a healthy dose of “techno-skepticism” is required to bridge the gap between rhetoric and implementation. Although I love technology and gadgets of all sorts, I am not uncritical of e-learning, and this article is intended to be highly skeptical.

No matter how you define e-learning, it can’t happen without some supporting infrastructure. Yes, we have access to the Internet. Yes, all our students have laptops, tablets, smart phones. Yes, all our material is available online. Yes, teaching staff are always available to answer student queries. In fact, none of these are true. Teaching staff may well have constant access to the Internet, but let’s face it, who really wants to answer student queries at all hours of the day and night? Research into work habits has revealed that people work best if they compartmentalize their lives into work and non-work. But somehow academics are expected to be “always on”. As to students, many of them do have portable computing equipment. But here’s the thing: not all do. My own University has a particularly heterogeneous student cohort, but I have known students (including a prize-winner) who couldn’t afford mobile phones of any sort, and I know plenty of others without smart phones. So Internet access is questionable at best. Is e-learning yet again going to discriminate between the haves and the have-nots? Writing in 2010, Andrea Lueg and Daniela Siebert voiced these same concerns, noting a previous author’s concerns on a possible “dangerous educational gap” for students in the developing world.

I don’t if anybody has tumbled to this fact yet, but e-learning, properly done, is expensive. University managers and policy-makers seem to assume that if the infrastructure is in place – and this may include computer systems, software, specially constructed learning spaces (note that I’ve cleverly avoided the use of the term “classrooms”) – then the learning will follow. But this assumes several doubtful assumptions: (1) that staff will be be willing to be trained in the use of the new systems, (2) that staff will be willing to change their teaching styles, and if necessary their curricula, to incorporate these new systems, (3) that support: academic, pedagogical and IT, will always be available, (4) that the systems are robust and accessible.

Results of a recent survey in the USA indicate that students want to use social networks, and want to use tools which increase their use of “untethered” learning, in a “digitally rich” environment. I wonder how well the current push towards e-learning actually meets these student expectations. After many years of teaching – oops, I mean: facilitating student learning – I’ve come to the conclusion that students also want these things: access to materials, a clear idea of the assessment, timely and constructive feedback, and (generally around the time of an exam or a major assessment piece) access to teaching staff for questions. Everything else is window-dressing. Learning seems to occur best when students feel they have ownership over the learning process; when they can engage with the teacher on their own terms and in their own time. For this reason large lectures are often poor environments for learning, although simply for economies of scale we are unlikely to remove them soon. This engagement in their own time seems to be one of the principal drivers behind the e-learning push, and yet no academics (at least, none I know of, and that includes academics on three continents) particularly want to be available outside of their working hours. They need more time for research (which, let’s face it, is still the best path to promotion), and maybe even time for their families and recreation. We are thus faced with the less desirable option of bunging a whole lot of material online, and no matter how interactive and student-centred the environment may be, it can never replace a flesh-and-blood teacher. (I don’t know of any e-learning environments that pass the Turing test; maybe I’ve lived a sheltered life.) This is where “blended learning” is supposed to come in: to provide the best possible mix of online and face-to-face learning, supporting both the learner, and the pedagogue. However, as long ago as 2005, Martin and Trigwell (“Can ‘Blended Learning’ Be Redeemed?”, E-Learning, Vol 2, No 1, 2005, pp 17-26) argued that
the very term “blended learning” is in fact impossible to define formally, and that it is “is ill-defined and inconsistently used”.

There seems to be a curious disconnect between what students want and need, and what university managers think will be Good for them. (And as an aside, isn’t it remarkable that educational policies are usually written by those who are the most removed from actual teaching?) For example, many universities are now excited about putting lectures online. Videos! How could students not love that? Well, many first-world students have been watching (and making) videos since their childhood, and watching videos is as natural as reading print (maybe even more so). There is nothing, then, innovative about videos as an educational medium. What’s more, a boring lecture (such as a few of mine!) is still a boring lecture whether it’s delivered face-to-face, or online. Universities are also still using email as their main communication medium, although in fact many students don’t check their email, preferring social media or SMS texts. Some universities have – in a somewhat desperate manner – started a facebook presence, but there is some evidence which indicates that students see facebook as a medium for communicating with friends, and are reluctant to mix work (study) with play (friends). And then there’s the grey area of staff and students becoming “friends” on facebook, and the amount of information which is then available to them.

One technology which universities have yet to engage with to its fullest extent is mobile devices: smart phones, 3G/4G networks. There s a growing interest in the use of such technology, but it is as yet in its infancy.

You might think that from much of the above I’m a reactionary curmudgeon who believes that education has gone downhill since the use of chalk and slates. This is not so. I am a passionate believer in using whatever tools, technology, practices or processes will help engaging students and encourage their learning. What I don’t believe in is the willy-nilly throwing of technology in the general direction of staff and students, and the totally unfounded assumption that technology, in and of itself, will enhance student learning and engagement.

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