As I write, the online JISC Innovating e-Learning 2008 Conference “Learning in a Digital Age – Are We Prepared?” is in full swing. I’ve been tracking the discussions in the “Listening to Learners” theme, which involved two presentations – one by E.A. Draffen on the issues arising from the LexDIS project and one by Malcolm Ryan giving selected findings from SEEL (Student Experience of e-Learning Laboratory) project.
The presentations arrived at the following conclusions:
* Not all students are digital natives (age is not necessarily a barrier, often it is the technology itself or the learning curve/time required);
* Using technology for its own sake (or because it’s “cool”) does not necessarily enhance the learning experience;
* Not all students want their learning to take place online – face-to-face interaction may be more suitable for some students and/or learning situations, and traditional (i.e. not electronic) resources are still preferred by many students;
* Students generally expect their tutors to be competent technology users and may have a negative experience if this is not the case;
* Not all tutors are motivated or able to use the technology (even if students expect them to be experts in this area);
* Technology used in the classroom, online, and socially is growing so quickly that it is often difficult for staff (and students) to keep up;
* Whilst some disabled students are more technologically adept and willing to experiment to get the technology to work in the way they need, there is often a time or financial cost, which can produce barriers.
The discussions which followed on from these presentations confirmed many of these findings and my favourite quote of the day came from E.A. Draffen, when she talked about the difficulties in cascading technology information to teaching staff: “Kit-Kats strapped to the back of iPods just don’t do it with staff sometimes”. E.A. was referring to the difficulty in getting staff to attend CPD (Continuing Professional Development) workshops on using technology. Many staff just can’t afford the time to attend such workshops or may not even be technologically engaged. Like students, teaching staff need to know what technologies are available to them, how they can be used (officially and unofficially), and have the time and motivation to explore those technologies. One counter-argument which came out of the discussions was that tutors should concentrate on helping students to understand their particular subject area, be it art or zoology, rather than have to be learning technologists as well. However, if educational institutions generally expect their students (and staff) to be literate (i.e. be able to read and write), perhaps it is not unfeasible to expect them to be technologically literate as well?
The unpopularity of VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) was also discussed and one delegate (a postgraduate student) suggested that if VLEs were designed by students that they might look more like PLEs (Personal Learning Environments). The importance of personalisation of the learning experience and flexibility in course design and delivery looks likely to become even higher as students (or “customers”) demand more value as fees increase. E-learning is not the be all and end all, and in any case, not all students want, or even are able, to engage with the technology.
So, although the discussions in this strand did not really throw up anything new, perhaps the fact that the same old issues and barriers to e-learning still exist is rather worrying. Online and learning technology is moving at a much faster rate than most of us can keep up with. For many students (not just those with disabilities) and even staff, this can be a real barrier to effective learning (and teaching). Is there a solution? We can’t slow down the rate of technological innovation and there are only so many hours in a day. Perhaps all we can do is muddle through as best we can, being more tolerant of those staff and students who have difficulties with using technology, and to continue to help each other to find innovative solutions to problems. Talking about the same old issues acknowledges that they are still there, but it also gives people the chance to discuss and disseminate the many different workarounds they have found. Whilst these issues are frustrating and challenging, perhaps they also make us more inventive.