I know there’s been a lot researched and written on this subject, here I’m reflecting and using the anecdotal evidence gathered over a few months work where I’ve been very privileged to have had the opportunity to have conversations with around 200 students from 11 institutions. Most of these conversations have come about through the Changing Learning Landscape Programme, a partnership between the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, Jisc, the HE Academy and the NUS. Through a series of discussions in Universities and Colleges where myself and others have been able to go in and speak to senior managers (PVC’s, Directors of TEL and e-learning, Directors of IT etc) and also with lecturers and importantly students we have gathered a lot of information about how technology features in the student experience .
In my conversations I wanted to unpick how student used the Virtual Learning Environment and other institutional technology. Almost all students said they used it on a regular basis, valued it and saw it as a trusted source for everything to do with their learning and associated activities at University. So that’s ok, isn’t it?
Well, yes and no.
Get the institutional technology right and add in a driver (an assessment or resource that the students must use to get a grade) and there is no doubt that students will use it. This was verified in my conversations. Dig a little deeper, “do you use the VLE (or other technology) to discuss the course, arrange groupwork, work with peers?” “yes… …if its assessed.” The conversations at this point almost always turned to the elephant in the classroom – Facebook.
Do you friend your lecturers? – mostly the answer is no.
Is there a course/module page or group? mostly the answer is yes (you don’t have to friend anyone to join).
But in addition to this a lot of the students also were regularly setting up their own groups and pages at both micro (a small group of students on a specific task) and macro (sometimes a group across several cohorts). This is not news to most people who work in education!
But what comes next? Facebook is unlikely to change its business model in the short term so students will most likely continue to use it. A lot of staff are recognising this and whilst still using the VLE they are also decamping to where the students are.
This raises three issues for me.
Firstly, what does this mean for the VLE and its future development? There is a lot written on the cost benefit analysis of having a VLE and there are many models for how to deploy and maintain one. After talking to my (limited) sample of students, most of them treat the VLE as a information store, a reference point and where necessary, and driven to, they use it for all of the admin functions of a course such as submission of assignments. If this is the case, should we redesign it with that in mind?
The second issue is a question about what would happen if we cede control to students. Allow students to self organise the course materials and structure according to their preferences. Yes, we would have to build in safeguards, and makes some elements compulsory to include, but why not allow them to control their own virtual learning environment in the same way as they can control their own personal physical learning environment? They might still mostly use Facebook etc, but if they are self-organising the chances are that there will be more joining up of the activities and spaces. Is anyone willing? Will someone make students the system admin?
The final issue, building on the conversations and the previous two points, is the VLE actually about learning? The anecdotal evidence from the student conversations that I have been having is that is less about learning, and more about access to reliable resources and information, and the main issues that they raise in conversation are about how that plethora of information is presented to them. Should the VLE become an extension of the library, and would that approach, with an emphasis on resource discovery and curation better serve students and their learning?