Sunday, May 29, 2016

What do the students think? It depends on what you mean by student.

What is a student? Despite the growth in lifelong learning I think the word still conjures up the traditional image of the 18-22 year-old studying on campus. They have invested heavily in the traditional model of higher education and decided to devote 3-5 years of their lives to full-time study where they expect the full package: lectures, tutorials, campus life, parties, network building and hundreds of hours writing essays and reading course literature. This is still how society views higher education but universities today also cater for a rapidly growing number of learners who are well over 25, don't go near a campus and do not even identify themselves as students. These two categories have very different perspectives on learning; one group see their studies as a full-time occupation that they have invested heavily in and the other see their studies as an extra element in their busy lives but not the most important.

So many studies want to measure student attitudes to online learning but it all depends which students you ask. This is clear from a new report by Blackboard, Redefining Value for Online Students, that asked a wide range of students about their experience and views of online courses in comparison to their campus courses. I cannot see whether all those questioned were full-time campus students but from the answers I suspect they were. The answers are summarised in the report as follows:

1. When students take a class online, they make a tacit agreement to a poorer experience which undermines their educational self worth. 
2. Students perceive online classes as a loophole they can exploit that also shortcuts the “real” college experience. 
3. Online classes don’t have the familiar reference points of in-person classes which can make the courses feel like a minefield of unexpected difficulties. 
4. Online students don’t experience social recognition or mutual accountability, so online classes end up low priority by default. 
5. Students take more pride in the skills they develop to cope with an online class than what they learn from it. 
6. Online classes neglect the aspects of college that create a lasting perception of value.

The students in the survey repeatedly compare online courses with campus and often focusing on the dangers of self-study such as social isolation and the lower levels of support and group dynamics. Certainly there are plenty of online courses that fit this description but there are also many campus courses that are deficient in similar ways. Well designed online courses can certainly offer an engaging and supportive learning environment where groups can interact both synchronously and asynchronously. Online groups can also become extremely close and many choose to continue their collaboration after the course has ended. Sadly the students in this survey do not seem to have experienced this side of online learning and base their judgements on poorly designed self-study courses. 

In my experience many campus students are rather conservative in their attitudes to online learning, probably because they are not the main beneficiaries. They see online courses as a threat to the campus experience they value so highly and are understandably worried that online learning means even less contact with faculty and more self-study. In addition the old reputation of online courses being a poor second choice alternative seems hard to erase. Most online learners however combine study with work, family and a social life that is not based around classmates. They don't identify themselves as students and generally have a fairly low sense of loyalty to the institution offering the course they study. Online studies are their only option and they judge their courses on their own merits rather than comparing them with the full-time campus model.

The conclusions of this study do show that the public image of online education is still rather poor and is still seen by many as a second rate option. Clearly quality can be raised especially in terms of how technology is used to facilitate collaboration, interaction and support. Ironically the reason many online courses are seen as one-way communication and self study (especially many MOOCs) is that many of them have simply adopted the information transfer pedagogy so often used in traditional campus teaching. Digital arenas can actually offer much richer opportunities for collaboration and discussion than physical spaces and when they do so the results are excellent. The fact that many courses fail to fully exploit these features is not the fault of the technology but the low awareness of the opportunities technology can offer.

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