When e-learning goes bad…

frightened womanI was lucky enough to be invited an event at Sheffield Hallam University last week exploring Google apps for education. Among the many great presentations and ideas (hoping to blog about some of them when there’s a moment), I was particularly impressed by one presentation from the University of Sheffield’s Dr Tim Herrick on what went wrong in one instance. Its often too easy for us to focus on the successes and sweep things under the carpet when they don’t go as planed, missing the opportunity to learn valuable lessons. I think this type of critical reflection and honesty is vital to help us address some of the (often well placed) cynicism amongst colleagues, particularly if they too have attempted something in good faith and have not achieved the results they were looking for.

Even more usefully, this presentation focussed on the thorny issue of student engagement – how do we get students on board with online learning? Student engagement in blended learning is a perennial problem (Milne et al, 2012) and this has certainly been borne out by the digital tumbleweed that I have seen blowing across so many well intentioned but neglected discussion boards and blogs. The example in this presentation was the use of Google hangouts to provide a virtual alternative to the underused office hour element of a 1st year Education module. After the initiative was introduced in the 3rd week and students were provided with a handout explaining how to use the tool, the academic sat back and waited. And waited. And waited. And no one came to hangout all module…

So what went wrong? Tim offers these insights in approximate order of priority;

  1. Fit.  There was no strong reason for students to use a video conferencing facility on this module.  They would get nothing they couldn’t get face-to-face; some of the things they were discussing may have been easier in a face-to-face context than mediated through technology; and using Hangouts was an idea introduced midway through the module.  So it wasn’t naturally congruent with the rest of the module, and students recognised and responded to this; a point well-made in the literature (e.g. Laurillard 2001).
  2. Student background.  One of the points of learning for me was around over-assuming technological competence amongst the students.  In informal conversations, I realised that many were unfamiliar with videoconferencing, and while they generally had the hardware required to use it, that didn’t necessarily mean they had the skills.
  3. Limits to the experience.  Using Hangouts wasn’t connected to the content of the module, and wouldn’t feature in any of the other taught session.  In an unhelpful way, it was separated from the rest of the module, and not something that would obviously improve the individual and collective learning experience.
  4. Optionality.  Using Hangouts was an optional possibility, in a form of contact that was in itself optional.  Given the amount of other demands on the time of new students, it would perhaps not be rational for them to devote too much time to this project, and there was no formal leverage for motivating them to do so.

Happily this was not the end of the story. Tim’s second experience using this technology with PG students studying a module on learning technologies worked much better; students joined a Google hangout with a defined purpose, following a preparatory task and leading into a subsequent face to face discussion. Students engaged and learning happened. Tim reflects on what had changed within the four categories highlighted in his earlier experience.

  1. Fit.  There was a strong reason for students to welcome the use of video conferencing in this session, as it fitted directly with the content of the module.  This had a positive impact on student motivation, and a willingness to experiment with something new.
  2. Student background.  While none of the students were hugely technical, they were more confident in using new technologies than new students – they had more experience of trying new things, and the cultural resources to access support when they needed it.
  3. Limits to the experience.  Here, I think the boundedness of the experience worked in its favour, particularly because it then became an object of reflection in its own right.  By being confined to a single hour, and half of a taught session, it had a definite shape and purpose, and this perhaps created a feeling of security that enabled learners to take the risk of participation.
  4. Optionality.  This experience was presented as part of the course, and participation was expected.  It was timetabled into the module from the beginning, and students were briefed about it well in advance.

Whether or not these categories can form the basis of some sort of checklist for successful use of learning technologies, I do feel they help to illustrate a widely held truth that technology alone will not ensure or prevent student engagement and learning benefits. However when the application of technology supports the learning, and students can easily see the benefits to them then its got a chance of getting off the ground.

Many thanks to Tim for session notes and some great insights.

Tim’s session notes

Refs:

Jeffrey, L. M., Milne, J., Suddaby, G., & Higgins, A. (2012). Strategies for Engaging Learners in a Blended Environment. Wellington: Ako Aotearoa

Laurillard, Diane. 2001. Rethinking University Teaching. Second Edition. London: Routledge.

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