Universities have been warned not to assume that “digital native” students will embrace all e-learning initiatives, or indeed prefer them to traditional forms of education. A report released by the Canadian consulting firm Higher Education Strategy Associates warns that calls for curricula to be “radically overhauled” are sometimes based on evidence that “can sometimes be alarmingly thin”. The authors surveyed nearly 1,300 students to determine views on e-learning, saying that there had previously been “precious little research” done in this area.
You know me. I've embraced technology in teaching and outside it: blogging, Twitter and so on, but I've remained sceptical of the boosters' claims that any new technology is per se better than existing strategies, and that new media should be uncritically adopted, regardless of cultural, educational or ideological concerns - my colleague Ms. E-Mentor shares my worries, and she's won national awards for her use of technology in humanities teaching.
At the heart of my concern is the feeling that technology is pushed not for the benefit of the student, but as a means of reducing staff-student contact time, staffing levels, building provision, all in the name of 'efficiency'. God knows we need to be careful with the institution's money at the present time, but efficiency must contribute to good teaching, not replace it as an establishment's prime directive. 'Efficient' hospitals means no spare nurses to comfort the dying: efficient universities mean linear transmission of facts rather than the intellectual back-and-forth of debate between engaged staff and students. This isn't education: it's a simulation of education which impoverishes all parties.
McLuhan's hackneyed old 'the medium is the message' applies here: there are many creative activities made possible through embracing new technology, as Ms. E-Mentor can show you, but withdrawing personal contact in favour of technology-driven methods will alienate students, place them on a certificate production line, and permanently damage them as individuals and as citizens. What we need are good quality courses designed in such a way that electronic media are harnessed to enhance provision: not to replace awkward and expensive elements.
Although over a quarter of those surveyed said they believed the quality of learning materials was better in courses with electronic elements, around half said that the quality of education was better when courses were delivered entirely by a lecturer in person. In addition, over two-thirds said that the quality of instructors was best on courses delivered in-person, with the report citing an “enormous desire [among students] to learn directly from a ‘sage on the stage’”.
The authors of the report suggest that the seemingly contradictory messages have to do with convenience: “Students prefer physical texts,” they explain, “but they’d like to have the option of having an e-resource to read it wherever and whenever they need.”
The report concludes that the main problem with e-learning in Canadian institutions is with the quality of resources, with more investment needed in the integration between in-person and online learning. The authors predict that, with the right investment, e-learning resources can become “a technology that actually enhances and is additive to their in-class experience".
An additional attraction of e-learning becomes apparent in another question asked as part of the survey: over half the students surveyed said that they were more likely to skip classes that offered online resources as it would be easier to catch up.What's shocking about much of the scholarship around e-learning is how uncritical much of it is: blinded by the pressure to be 'modern', they assume that students will be impressed by teachers who know how to use a computer. This is desperately limited: 1980s kids were much more tech-savvy because they learned how to programme BBC Micros and ZX Spectrums. Nowadays, teachers and students are reduced to passivity. A computer is a magic black box to most of us: we learn like monkeys to press the right buttons and persuade ourselves that we are on the cutting edge. None of us are 'digital natives': we're passengers on a bus we can't drive. But you won't find many of the e-learning community making this point.
Why the reference to ursine defecation? Because anyone who actually spends time in classrooms rather than pontificating at a distance about teaching, knows that human contact is at the heart of successful education. We're always going on about how to stop students dropping out. I'd suggest that talking to them, learning their names and having passionate debates about the subject in hand - rather than restricting them solely to online interaction - might be the way to do it. What do you reckon?
To your Arduino…