Sunday, September 17, 2017

Students and educational technology - it's complicated

A recurring narrative in educational technology is that students are driving the change. They are using the creative and collaborative opportunities offered by today's social media and demanding that universities and faculty do the same. This is used as a powerful argument by edtech companies when selling their solutions. This narrative is strongly linked to the idea of students as digital natives and is often the reason for institutions rushing head first into hasty and largely unplanned technology projects. No one wants to appear out of touch with student demands and so major technology projects are launched without first discussing the pedagogical implications and how the technology can be used to enhance teaching and learning. Of course students are using digital tools and arenas in their learning but not as widely and proficiently as the edtech narrative claims.

But are students really demanding change? My own experience leads me to question this to a certain extent. Furthermore, digital literacy is not a simple generation issue but more about whether or not a person is interested in the use of technology. Many students are highly proficient at using digital devices and social media for socialising and entertainment but are unaware of how to use them for work and learning. It would be extremely dangerous to assume that all students are proficient at information retrieval, source criticism, collaborative learning and media skills and most institutions are now integrating these soft skills into all parts of the curriculum. However, this change is not due to student demand but due to teachers becoming aware that these skills are missing and taking action to remedy the gaps.

Sometimes students can be more conservative than faculty and this issue is raised in an article in EdSurge, What If Students Are the Biggest Barrier to Innovation? Even if many students have used a wide range of digital tools and learning spaces in their high school years, whenever they arrive on campus they are told that university is different. Students are generally very pragmatic; they want to get their grades and then a degree in the most efficient way possible. They will adapt to whatever the institution demands. They also have the traditional image of university in their heads and are disappointed if their experience doesn't match it.

... the “metaphor” of the old and wise professor pouring knowledge into students through class lectures is what many graduate students expect. When they don’t get that experience because they are forced to do group work and interact with peers (who they do not view as subject-matter experts), they don’t feel like they are learning.

“I have had students tell me. I am not paying to listen to my neighbor's thoughts, I am paying to hear you,” says Pickett.

This is reinforced by the vocabulary of higher education so if we call the teachers lecturers and the lessons are called lectures then a lecture is naturally what the students expect. Teachers who focus on student-centred learning and concepts such as collaborative learning, flipped classroom, problem-based learning and so on risk negative evaluations from students who expect to be fed with wisdom and knowledge. Expectations, tradition and attitudes are major barriers to change and cannot be overcome simply by logical argument, no matter how much research evidence is available.

I would say that the main drivers of change in terms of educational technology are teachers who are using the technology successfully, often due to a desire to widen their professional skills and a genuine interest in pedagogical innovation. The problem is, however, that many of these teachers have developed their digital skills on their own initiative, usually outside working hours. This ad hoc approach means that teachers' digital skills are not evenly distributed and there is often an alarming digital divide within the teaching staff of most institutions.

This inconsistency is a concern for many students as discussed in an article from JISC in the UK, It’s official - higher education students want staff to be better with digital, not to use more of it. Students in this national survey state clearly that they want all staff to be trained in using digital tools and demand more consistent use of technology rather than more variety.

Don’t allow academic staff to pick their own ways of using digital resources. At the moment each academic uses the virtual learning environment (VLE) in a different way, making it very time consuming to keep switching approaches. It’s also obvious that academic staff have not received adequate training in using these systems.

They are not demanding more technology but a more strategic approach to technology use and fewer bottom-up ad hoc initiatives. Interestingly the survey reveals a concern that online learning lacks a face-to-face element and a fear that more technology means less classroom contact with teachers.

However, when asked what their institution should do and not do, students requested a better use of digital systems, not more, fearing it could be used to replace face-to-face time with staff.

What seems to be missing here is a realisation that online collaboration is an essential skill in many companies and organisations today and that this skill must be developed at university and integrated into all programmes. Sadly online work is still seen as a substitute for "real" contact instead of a valuable skill in itself.

The conclusion is that technology can enhance teaching and learning but to succeed it needs to be explained and introduced gradually. Both teachers and students need to change their perspectives and this takes time. Above all the process requires skilled management and leadership and only when all these conditions are fulfilled will we see successful implementation and integration of technology in education.

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