Jisc infoNet’s Doug Belshaw examines whether the way we define students’ attendance will still work in the digital age.
When I looked at the Oxford English Dictionary, there were ten different definitions of attendance – but they can be roughly divided into:
- attention-based attendance – involves applying your mind to something, and investing effort. This is obviously something that we want in learning organisations and we often call this ‘engagement’.
- community – individuals are present at an event that relies upon interaction around a resource or proceeding. Live concerts, court summons and webinars can all be examples of attendance as community.
- service – somebody waiting upon the actions or decisions of a superior. This is what many would see as a rather 19th-century idea of subservience.
I would suggest that learning organisations might want to move away from a service-based definition of ‘attendance’ to support attention-based and community-based attendance. But it’s a radical shift. Does it mean the death of the lecture? Is it possible to measure these types of attendance in the way that you can with the service-based conception?
The attention-based definition says that you don’t have to be physically present somewhere to be learning. At the University of Bristol, for example, students can pick up a WiFi signal while waiting at the bus stop and be ‘present’ and learning. An individual could fail to be concentrating whilst listening to someone face to face whereas online they’re highly engaged.
Interactions, whether online or offline, are no more real or virtual in one form or another – so it makes sense to look at having both a virtual attendance mark and a physical attendance mark. The idea that online interaction is a poor substitute for face to face interaction is latent in a lot of people’s thinking.
There are, nevertheless, proscribed numbers of ‘contact’ hours which, unfortunately only count if face-to-face. That will undoubtedly change and, as with the example of Michael Sandel’s Justice course at Harvard, prospective students will be able to base their decision on which learning organisation to attend based on observable teaching and learning experiences.
We’re seeing a move away from the educator’s right to lecture towards the learner’s right to learn in personalised ways. This, along with the ability to use open educational resources within iTunesU, OpenCourseware and so on for marketing purposes, learning organisations can justify less face-to-face ‘broadcast’ time and more interaction time.
The community definition of attendance means that being present at an event is not enough. The community of learners adds to your experience and means it’s not simply a one-way relationship. Online communities can build that quicker than a physical community because existing networks can lead quickly to a group with a specific interest. One example of learners benefiting from a shared experience is in a massive open online course, or MOOC.
Anyone can sign up to learn and then define their own learning outcomes so you just go to sessions you’re interested in. Because all the assignments are posted online, it means that you can share what you’re learning with others, and they with you, so it becomes a really organic process of discovery.
Re-examining attendance leads to lecturers asking: what type of attention and engagement am I getting with this and are the students really benefiting? Increasingly, and especially in a market-driven learning organisations such as those being created in the UK, educational institutions are going to be forced to go where they can get the most engagement. Take the London School of Business and Finance, for example, who have recently launched a Facebook MBA application. As ReadWriteWeb puts it:
"Potentially there’s a crisis of irrelevance on the horizon for universities. When Bill Gates said recently that in the next five years the best education will be found online, I’m not sure he was thinking about Facebook as the educational platform of the future. But the London School of Business and Finance is, and this year the school announced a new course that will make its MBA course materials available online for free, delivered via a Facebook app. Of course, if you want to actually get your MBA, you’ll have to fulfil the pre-requisites for the program and you’ll have to pay for the credits and examinations, offered through the University of Wales."
So what technology do colleges and universities need to achieve the maximum engagement? We want high quality outcomes for students and sustainable workloads for our staff – so to achieve this we need to look at what we already have that could help. Perhaps you have a good amount of traction with a virtual learning environment or a wiki. Or perhaps there’s a mobile network that your learners are already using to access course information. Where the technology is already being used for administrative purposes, the move to use it for teaching and learning will be more achievable.
Technology is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for social changes to take place. For example, there were mobile phones powerful enough to do what the original iPhone did before 2007 but it took the idea of ‘apps’ for the use of smartphones to really take off. In that sense, it’s the culture and social norms around technology that matter rather than the devices and communications technologies themselves.
In conclusion, then, the future isn’t in ‘virtual attendance’ via some kind of Second Life-style ‘avatar as self’. The future of learning institutions is in moving away from service-based definitions of attendance and towards attendance as attention and community. Using that kind of framework will help whether there is a business case for continuing existing practices or, indeed, encouraging new ones.
This article originally featured in issue 31 of Jisc inform (UK web archive)