Friday, October 19, 2012

What Students Want and How Universities are Getting it Wrong

English: Blended learning methodology graphic
Blended learning methodology graphic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Dr Alasdair McAndrew, Associate Dean (Learning & Teaching), Faculty of Health, Engineering and Science at Victoria University, The Conversation:

FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION: We continue our series on the rise of online and blended learning and how free online courses are set to transform the higher education sector. 

Today, Victoria University’s Alasdair McAndrew looks at how the student has been overlooked in the rush to online education.

Do the phrases “blended-learning” and “virtual classrooms” fill you with excitement, or are they the kind of buzzwords that produce a resigned fatigue?

Whether you’re a “technopositivist” or a “technoskeptic”, it’s clear many universities are getting it wrong when it comes to e-learning - neither considering the needs of the student or the teacher.

They assume a good online education will just happen, and that both staff and students will rapturously embrace these new technologies - whatever the quality of access or learning. In the immortal words of author, Douglas Adams: “We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works.”

A skeptical eye

E-learning has been defined by D. Randy Garrison: “as electronically mediated asynchronous and synchronous communication for the purposes of constructing and confirming knowledge.” While “electronically” could easily be replaced with “online” - you get the general idea.

Although I love technology and gadgets of all sorts, I am not uncritical of online learning, and remain unconvinced of the grandiose claims made by e-learning proponents.

For a start, there is a widely held assumption that because online learning is “A Good Thing”, all staff and all students will want it and want to embrace it. However, the purported benefits of e-learning for students are balanced out by some serious disadvantages, including problems of access, less time face-to-face with teachers and doubts about its effectiveness.

Where’s the evidence?

For the moment, we don’t yet know if online education actually gets students learning. There are hardly any studies which formally evaluate the effectiveness of e-learning on a large scale; almost all consider small sample sizes in a few subjects only, and come to conclusions which generally fall short of being ringing endorsements.

For example, a report of a large meta-analysis released in 2010 found that “on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

But this statement was modified further - it was not necessarily the learning environment which was responsible for the “modest” success, but the extra time and attention which came with it.

In a 2009 paper, researchers tried to evaluate online education using a set of learning objectives known as Bloom’s taxonomy. They concluded that “individual and instructional factors do not have a significant effect on e-learning.”

In effect, from their (very small) sample size, they claimed that e-learning was no worse than conventional learning and teaching methods. Again, this is a very meagre claim.

Better access needed

Another unfounded assumption is that the institution’s infrastructure will support online education, and that all staff and students will have equal and unfettered access.

However, as has been discussed in this series, not all students have unfettered access to the internet at all times and places. Online learning can easily discriminate between the haves and the have-nots.

Even at my own university, which has a particularly heterogeneous student cohort, there are students (including a prize-winner) who couldn’t afford mobile phones of any sort, and plenty more without smart phones. Many students can only access the internet at the university.

There is plenty of criticism aimed at online courses now for this reason. But the problem will only increase as more students attend post-secondary education, including those from refugee families and other digitally poor backgrounds.

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1 comment:

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