When we come across new technologies or digital platforms for the first time in further and higher education (HE), how do we decide what the technology does or should do, and how we can use it to help us?
In the digital student project we have been investigating incoming students’ expectations of the digital environment in HE. Institutions will be working to meet or manage expectations as hundreds of thousands of new students arrive in September but it’s no small task to build a picture of students’ hopes and aspirations when there are modules to rewrite and technology to update over the summer.
Clearly experiences of digital technology while at school will be a major influence, so we have looked closely at the sort of technologies schools own and how they use it.
In the classroom
Coming to an understanding of the use of technology in schools wasn’t straight forward. There isn’t as much written on normal day-to-day use as you might expect, plus practices can vary widely within a single institution, let alone between them. Essentially, as is the case in HE, you might get a teacher who uses digital technology in an innovative and inspiring manner – or you might not.
We found that while there are examples of interesting practice and quite a few cases of schools buying ‘cool’ technology, these are isolated and not necessarily indicative of larger trends. The reality is that most students’ experiences of digital technology in schools is rudimentary and tends not to stray too far from traditional pedagogical paradigms.
In effect, learning remains one-way, and new technology is simply a new channel for delivery – such as watching a teacher click through a PowerPoint, or using the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) as just another distribution method for content, rather than an opportunity to engage students in new ways.
Schools of old were designed to deliver a tightly organised curriculum using an abundance of face-to-face time with students. For better or worse, this approach in a highly didactic form still remains today. The incorporation of technology is subservient to that, usually applied with hopes of efficiency gains rather than aspirations for improving learning and teaching.
At the very least teachers need to talk with students about how they might be using the web for homework and other study. This might already be happening, but it’s not clear from the literature or from our focus groups.
Digital technologies in HE
When students enter HE they already have reasonably clear expectations of what technologies they are entitled to, which is usually focused around access to the web, provision of software and hardware, and availability of digital content. These expectations will largely be a mirror of their experiences in school – which tend to be limited in learning and teaching terms – but with a sense that technical and content provision will be ‘better’, because HE is seen as bigger, more grown-up or ‘professional’.
What incoming students are generally less clear on is the nature of HE itself and how this should influence the manner in which they go about learning.
The fact is that HE is different to school, with hugely reduced face-to-face time, underpinned by more sophisticated, independent learning.
It’s also likely that at least some of their course will be ‘moving’ online, including formal contact with staff. If incoming students’ expectation is that digital in education contexts is only a one way street for sharing content, then they are going to struggle to engage in discourse online.
HE institutions need to make it clear that access to the latest technology and a cornucopia of digital resources are not the only ingredients in becoming a successful learner. Alongside ongoing improvements to infrastructure led by IT induction programmes, course teams need to challenge incoming students assumptions about the nature of learning and the role digital technology can play in their studies.