Session 3: Bridging the gap

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Session 3 of the student experience theme was called Bridging the Gap. The intent was to stimulate discussion and thinking following up from the previous sessions about dissonances between students and institutional expectations. The panel members are project leaders on initiatives that have talked to students about their experiences of learning using technologies or initiatives that use new technologies in learning, and one is a student who talked about her experiences during her degree course. One issue that recurred in the question-and-answer sessions was the problem of institutional email and whether students actually check it, and who the onus should be on to ensure that university communication reaches them; and again, the discussion entered the territory of whether teaching staff should be led by students’ use of technologies by implementing social networking tools in courses.

Greg Benfield chaired the session.

GB: Each panel member will give 10 minutes on their area of research or practice, followed by five minutes in a Q&A session, and then a general discussion. Introduction of the panel – Rob How, Nicola Whitton, Malcolm Ryan and Mabel Abgenorto (student from University of Hertfordshire’s STROLL project).

Rob How: Head of learning technology and media development at University of Northampton. Back in late 2006 we saw a JISC call for learners’ experience of e-learning Phase 2 following the success of Phase 1. It would look at theexperiences of effective e-learners, and we put in a bid, and were notified in Feb 2007 that we were successful. That allowed us to look at what we’d put into the call and refine it to make sure we weren’t crossing over with the other projects in that strand.

We focused on three key themes – student transitions, student lightbulb moments, shadow technologies – the technologies used alongside institutional technologies and underground technologies, those specifically banned by insititutions but still used by students. We looked across three experiences – higher education, further education in a partnership with Northampton College, and adult community learning. We felt they came to their studies with a different type of motivation.

Our project is just over halfway through now. We’ve spoken to a number of learners in each of those sectors, not as many as we’d like in the FE sector, but lots in the other two. With regard to some of our early findings, we’re taking the video clips that we had of the students and breaking them down into themes relating to our key areas. At the outset, we talked about ‘effective e-learners’ and we’re now focusing on ‘proficient e-communicators’. The students meeting the first three levels of the Salmon model are classified as ‘proficient’.

We’re creating interactive case studies and putting them on our website, giving people the opportunity to comment on them. That’s in process at the moment and we’re hoping to get the information out there. Our early results are quite interesting. For today’s session we’re looking at institutional practices and bridging the gap. What students are using is different to what’s being put out there. For the types of student we were talking to, in HE there were few boundaries, but in FE there was locking-down of technology and access. We’re re-engaging the FE sector to gain more data. The outputs have been interesting in terms of our own institutional planning – going back to basics from the perspective of the learner. Put yourself in their shoes and think about their developmental processes. Certainly some people have found that very useful. It’s an ongoing process and we have another six months or so to run.

That’s my brief summary of the project so far. We’ll have chance to talk more about the project and the things that you’re interested in.

Mark Childs, Coventry University: When you were talking about the shadow technologies, how do you see the institutions meeting the students’ needs as far as they’re concerned?
RH: We’re looking at the things institutions are banning or blocking. We’re hearing about how students use the Web 2.0 technologies and how students want a division between the two, but some would still like some interaction. For us, that is one of the shadow technologies. Some would like that integration. It’s a chance to recognise what these technologies are and form the personalised learning experience. The underground technologies are those banned. I heard about a tutor telling students not to use Google for assignments. That worries me – they’ll do it anyway and not tell you. What institutions should be doing is recognising that they’re using them and that they’re useful for students, and showing them how to use it more effectively. The danger is that institutions fall behind what learners are looking for.
MC: Isn’t there a problem of boundary issues then?
RH: Definitely. You need to define the pull and push technologies and enable students to pull down information if they want it in their account.

Julian Beckton, University of Lincoln: Institutions are large, complex places. You talk about course design, and that happens at local levels. How do you build policy around that?
RH: The challenge is to look at institutional change as a whole, and there are projects looking at how to make that happen. You can do it through engagement, but there will always be people who don’t want to change. In this project, we found that the student voice is a very powerful way of overcoming resistance to change – we can show student experience to people, and sometimes it’s just about hearing what students are saying, picking up their experiences, and working from that. There are many different ways to achieve institutional change.

Bill Olivier, JISC: I recently went on to a part-time MSc. Apart from that as far as e-learning support consisted of a Moodle resource from one tutor, I was shocked at how bad the total student experience was – from induction onwards. It seems to me that looking at student experience of e-learning at a broader institutional level would be significant.
RH: At the University of Northampton you wouldn’t have had those problems. My own experience as a part-time student has been different. You get a different experience. I think it is interesting – you’d be the sort of person we’d talk to – the disconnection, the differences, those are the things we hear about all the time. Students are more expressive about their discontent, particularly in this economic climate.
BO: Might your project come out with a set of guidelines?
RH: The Support and Synthesis programme is pulling out guidelines across the board for institutions and practitioners. There were already some guidelines as part of Phase 1.

Nicola Whitton: Good morning, thank you very much. I’m a research fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Our project (ARGOSI project) began by looking at students’ initial experience, and looking at how important initial experience is in terms of retention. The initial experience doesn’t meet the needs of the increasingly diverse range of students.

There are three strands – orientation (how do I get around?); socialisation (this hasn’t really changed despite the changing student demographic, and freshers’ week still consists of going down the pub); induction (the core learning skills, such as library skills, and the problem was that it’s shoved into one week at the start of semester and there’s no context relating to study. They’d sit down in a library and be shown a reading list and told how to search, and by the time the students needed it, they couldn’t remember it).

These were the issues that came up, and we thought we’d look at Alternate Reality Games. I could give a whole talk about what ARGs are, but essentially they’re nothing to do with Second Life – it’s a blend between an online world and a real world. It’s underpinned by collaborative challenges, and you need a diverse range of skills and experiences to solve them. It seemed a good way of getting students motivated with purpose, to look at induction and socialisation.

So the ARGOSI project was born, and started in April this year, so it’s pretty new. We’ve split it into two, looking at Orientation and Socialisation as challenges out in the real world, meeting people, and then looking at Content, one set of library information skills, and mapping the usual library skills onto different challenges. The project is prototyping at MMU in September 2008 and we’re currently testing.

My background is in the use of computer games in education. Games don’t appeal to everybody, but certain types of games provide challenge, context, purpose and motivation. ARGs are collaborative – the fact that the narrative is designed collaboratively – we have a basic structure, but the way it’s interpreted will change every time. They’re lo-fi – they use existing technologies and pull together what makes sense; the only piece of new technology is an engine that allows social networking within the game and allows students to see what challenges they’ve completed.

The development effort in terms of new technologies is much less than other games used for education. They use actual reality too, allowing us to use online and the real world for what they’re best at, and allowing other organisations to get involved. It’s early days, but some of the things we’re interested in – we know ARGs are niche and they won’t appeal to everyone, but we’re hoping that when people take part in the project they do it through choice, including students who wouldn’t normally take part in this kind of activity. In Brighton, they found that those who took part in a similar project might not have engaged at all in other induction activities. On the other side, are ARGs effective for learning? Are students meeting their learning outcomes? We’re also concerned about whether there’s a tension between the underground and the mainstreamand whether by bringing ARGs into institutions it removes what’s attractive about them. For more information, look at www.playthinklearn.net/argosi.htm.

Mark Childs: I’ve worked in education and I’ve heard that not everyone’s into gaming. What is it that doesn’t appeal to people?
NW: What I’ve found is students who didn’t like them saw them as frivolous, didn’t like the competition, or doesn’t see them as relevant for learning. People learn in different ways. Older females tend not to like them so much, but ARGs may be different.

Andrew Ravenscroft, London Metropolitan University: Games is a misused term. Is there a particular type of game that was not attractive to students?
NW: We looked at computing students, which showed that they like multiplayer games and shoot ’em ups. The demographic was men under the age of 20, so that’s not surprising. I’m interested in unpicking what types of games people are interested in for learning. There’s not necessarily a link between games for leisure and learning.

David Utton, JISC: There’s an idea if an institution does something, students will back away. But if the students’ union does it, it might draw students in, if you make it subversive.
NW: That’s what we’re doing. We’ve got three courses involved who will hand out teaser flyers with a URL on it in the hope that those interested enough will be the demographic we’re looking for. We’re putting up posters in the union, putting postcards in the postcard racks. This brings me back to whether we should put the university logo on it – if they see it, they’ll put it in the bin.

Malcolm Ryan: I feel privileged to be here. I haven’t been managing a JISC project, I’ve been funded by the Academy. We’ve been running a three-year initiative, and there’s lots of things I’d like to share with you from the project, Student Experience of e-learning Laboratory (SEEL ). I’ll share with you some of the things our students said.

I was interested by Greg’s opening comment – I’d forgotten this was called Bridging the Gap. That assumes there is a gap. Where is it? How big is it? How will we plug it if we can find it? I think there are some gaps, and one of the first gaps is in how effectively we evaluate the impact of technology on learning and teaching. At Greenwich, there was a widely-held view that e-learning was being used to enhance the student experience. When we went to schools and talked to heads of learning, we discovered there was no systematic evaluation. If it was done at all, it was patchy. There was millions of pounds being spent, and precious little evaluation of the impact – was it making a difference? Nobody could answer the question.

We started out to capture information about our students with an online survey and had nearly 1000 students, mostly from first years. Less than 50% use their university email account regularly. What’s interesting is that the university reckons that once they have emailed a student, they have communicated with them. Whether they pick it up is neither here nor there. Students reported in 92% of interactions with peers and tutors, they were using email – negotiating tutorials, getting comments, organising meetings with friends. We have VLEs and Web 2.0 tools, but students mostly use email, and the staff were encouraging it. How inefficient is that? Research for assignments was mainly conducted through Wikipedia and Google. Students say they’re told to look on Google first. I forget how many thousands of pounds our institution spends on databases, e-readers, Swetswise and so on. Nothing wrong with Google, but that’s millions of pounds wasted.

What about Web 2.0? There was an indication that there’s a very clear separation between using technology for learning and for social situations. I keep hearing from colleagues that this is where we should be going – Facebook, Myspace – that’s where students are hanging out and we should hang out there too. Actually, the students don’t want their tutors in their Facebook. There were some students who thought it would be nice because they’d get to know the person behind the lecturer, but that wasn’t universal.

Some use WebCT, email, Facebook and MSN – we heard yesterday that’s typical of some students but not all by any means. One student only leaves his email when he goes to the loo or to a lecture or to eat, and uses it all through the day. I find having wireless internet at a conference very distracting. Another student said they’re not a person who can sit down at a computer and know what they’re doing, so this idea of the Google Generation isn’t actually true of a number of students. Students may know how to use technologies, but whether they can apply it in a context is a different matter. Those of us of different generations may be more sophisticated in our use of the technology. One person said it was hard to sift out information and references on the internet. There was a student who said they prefer sitting in a library, where there’s a librarian and other students, and find themselves getting lost at a computer with lots of windows. A Chinese student said that students can talk to tutors in China, but here they don’t have the time. One student said they welcome the plagiarism detection software as a learning tool, and one said that face-to-face learning is helpful because you can ask questions.

Jackie Carter, University of Manchester: In terms of the benchmarking, what should be measured? What will show if e-learning has an impact?
MR: One of the aspects was to see if there was a correlation between student achievement using technology and retention and progression. There were so many variables, but the systems in the university had not been set up to gather the relevant information. There’s a huge gap in the data gathering. People aren’t gathering appropriate information, and maybe institutions should be looking at that. If we want value for money, what should we be evaluating?
JC: One of the things we do as service providers is measure hits – that’s one thing you can do. But the qualitative benefits are a very different things.

Richard Joiner, University of Bath: Students not wishing tutors to be on Facebook is curious. It’s like university – there are parts of it where you can stay out.
MR: How many people have a Facebook account and visit it more than once a day? I visit mine more than once a day, and I’m happy to share my life with people- if I’ve travelled, if I’ve been to a great conference. It can be a distraction, but I’m not sure how useful it is. It connects people, but I’m not sure how useful it is in a solid learning context.
RJ: If students use Facebook I can locate and message them really quite quickly.
MR: If you can guarantee presence from the people you want to network and communicate with, it’s good. Most of my students are mature. I have a dilemma – if someone posts something on my wall that’s a formal question, is that the appropriate place to conduct the exchange? It’s the same as if you went for a drink somewhere and bumped into someone on your course.

Q1: Is there some things that it’s not worth evaluating?
MR: I suppose so. It is true that there’s lots of things we don’t evaluate, like the environment we sit in, people’s reactions to the colour on the wall – it has an effect on the way people feel about things. Students’ feelings about learning and the technology are really important, and I’m not sure how we’d evaluate them in any systematic way. If I’ve learnt one thing out of this project, it’s that every student is different. I’m not sure if we ever will achieve total personalisation, but if it were possible, that would be the road to go down.

Mabel Abgenorto: I’ve recently finished my degree at the University of Hertfordshire in Computing and Business. I’ve been at UH for two years, and came in on a direct entrant programme. I didn’t get enough points to go straight into my degree, so I went to college to get the basic qualifications and then went straight into my second year. I’m coming from an FE college to HE. There was a massive difference and a gap. When I came into HE, I realised there were certain topics the class had already covered in the first year, and that we hadn’t studied. In some of our courses we did explain that to our lecturers – we didn’t have the same skills as our peers. I was in a good group, and most people wanted to learn, so some of our lecturers did give us the information.

Our expectations – we were told there would be more students and less help. There are massive lecture halls and one teacher. You have to book an appointment on certain days to ask questions. We were told the workload would be harder. Going into my second year, we did a project called ISD2 with Martina Doolan, and in that subject we were set tasks to deliver our research in different ways, and were provided with various options. We could use podcasts, cameras, and basically had the freedom to use whatever technologies we wanted. We were spoilt for choice. Most people used podcasts or video cameras or voice recordings, and we posted it on a wiki page, set up just for us – just the students in the class. We posted our findings and it had nothing to do with the university – it wasn’t open to the rest of the university. Most of our groups used our own technology even though we were told there would be technologies available to us to use. On the wiki page we were able to post up information about ourselves – we didn’t get to choose the groups we were in, and part of the task was to get to know each other. We posted pictures of ourselves and contact details, which was really successful. Doing that project was really successful, and helped us to find out about different views and how to answer questions. On the group page, if someone posted a question, lots of answers would be provided, from people’s different angles, which was fun.

Because of how relaxed it was, instead of meeting up during the week, we’d have meetings online, and everybody had MSN. We would copy our conversation onto a Word document and put that as an appendix.

On the business side, it was very different. Some of the lecturers did put podcasts on StudyNet – that’s our local area for everyone at UH. You have flexibility to redesign it if you want to – change backgrounds and make comments. With the business side, there wasn’t as much interaction – we didn’t know who we were, and nobody wanted to know, and that was more difficult when we were put into groups. We didn’t get responses from other students. People in the business project didn’t do as well – C, D, E grades, which was really poor. We were doing these two projects at the same time, and excelling in one and not the other. It wasn’t as easy to go to the business lecturers as it was to Martina.

Going into Year 3, the expectations were different. We hardly had any podcasts in Year 3 and little interaction with the staff. Some lecturers weren’t putting up their slides on time. Malcolm talked about the usage of email. Most people do not use their email account – I’ve no idea why. On StudyNet, we have personal messaging, and as soon as you log on, there’s a pop-up that tells you that you have an email. Social networking – I believe it should be separate from your educational institution. You need to have something separate from your university. Some lecturers do have Facebook accounts and welcome their students; that’s quite effective for the teachers because they can see who their students are. An answer to that might be to have a separate Facebook account for lecturers as well as their personal one, so they can create a group just to help students.

Working with the STROLL project, we had certain equipments that we were given and asked to evaluate our learning. I realised that what I was doing was having an impact on my learning. We take technologies for granted, and I didn’t realise it was aiding us in our learning. We were thinking – how did it help? What were the differences? It helps you to understand what you’re actually doing.

Q2: A comment on Facebook – I think this is about us as teaching staff treating students as people. I have students as friends on my Facebook account, but they’re students I’m friendly with – they’re Masters students or PhD students. I’d never invite a student to be a friend as I think that would put them under undue pressure. The question is about the email – you said that people don’t use email. Is that just their university accounts?
MA: yes. Most people who come into university already have email. As you get into your final year, you have to look into your university email account – there’s vital information there, and there are little reminders.
Q2: Our university has removed the ability for students to set up a forward, which I think is madness.
MA: You could introduce the PMs that we have – they tell you to check your email.

Sam Smith, University of Bolton: Having choice of how users receive their messages is really the only way to go.

Greg Benfield opened the debate to the floor, inviting questions to the panel.

Q3: To an extent, I think we’ve covered it, but it comes back to what we need to do is tie together these different sets of expectations, and get our infrastructure people to enable staff to talk to students. I don’t want to harp on about email, but I used to send emails to students and they’d receive it however they wanted. The point is I don’t know how they receive it, but I make it clear that that’s how I communicate and it’s their responsibility to set up the other half of the equation. We must stop forcing our students to work in a particular way, and support the adaptivity and flexibility.
MR: We have a similar policy at Greenwich. We used to allow students to change their profile, and they stopped that. The rationale was that students change email accounts without telling the university and then emails go out and students aren’t getting them. That was a problem because universities need to guarantee that the email address is working under its charter.

Peter Bird, MMU: I’m wondering, we’ve talked about the student experiences, but if you think about tutors and lecturers, there’s an increasing age demographic there, and students are better informed than the people trying to use them.
RH: It was handy for us when we got our JISC funding – within a few weeks we got some HEA funding. E4L was about what students said, but we also went top-down with a staff development project. Then we can help staff with the technology as well. We can do case studies about how the student experience has changed, and how staff can respond to that.
NW: I’m not convinced that it’s a terribly helpful distinction to talk about generation gaps. There are young people who don’t want to engage with it, and older people who do. It’s about different people having different styles of learning, and it’s all about flexibility for staff and students. That flexibility is there.
MR: I think the problem is that within HE there is an enormous untrained and unqualified workforce who don’t understand about learning and teaching. The technology puts a lens on it and shows how inept some people are. If you can’t write a decent learning outcome and identify clear evidence and activities to generate it, it doesn’t matter what technologies you use, it won’t get better. People use technology as a way of training teachers in basic learning theory, which is a bit dodgy, I think.
PB: I did my first degree in 1974, and my second in 2004, and the experience was much the same.

Q4: Technology is not infallible. Hotmail decided the university was a spam originator and put all mails in the Junk. If staff are going to deliver to students, they need technological support. If you’ve got hundreds of students you can’t deliver that personalisation on your own. Mabel, I wondered if you had any thoughts about whether your contrasting experience was because of your colleagues or the approach of the tutors.
MA: With business, there are loads more students than in computing. There’s only one lecturer for all the students. With business, staff have come from industry. I suppose most business students can use the basic computers, but because I’m doing a two-part course I’m exposed to more than other friends doing business and law – they don’t have the need to and don’t enjoy using computers. It depends on the course structure and what your passion lies in. Overall, the business department don’t know much about other equipments. Not everybody’s lecturer uses podcasts, for example. It depends on the lecturer.

OO: Mabel, what would you say are the two primary ways in which learning technologies have enhanced your experience as a student?
MA: Enabling us to have choice and see things in a different perspective. I’m not great at writing, I’d rather work in groups. Second, using technologies effectively. Some of us do have the technologies and we don’t know how to make it work to its full potential.

Ellen Lessner, Abingdon and Witney College: I’m interested in the big gap that you were suggesting, Mabel, between your experience in FE and in HE. My own experience is that we have lots of foundation degrees and students have to log on to supporting institutions, and nobody teaches them how to use Athens, and so on.
MA: I mentioned that because I was course rep for two years, and I addressed that at one of our sessions. They suggested getting the FE colleges to use the HE systems there and training the FE students to use the HE equipment, but we didn’t have that luxury. It should be better by now.
RH: Certainly from our own experience, we are delivering HE into FE. We’ve just instigated better partnerships – students might ask for technical support at the FE institution and not get it, so we started a programme working with those who should be supporting the students. We picked up some big gaps – we assumed that staff would be able to support, and they didn’t know where to send them for support either. I know there are some JISC projects going on in terms of sharing some of the MIS data between institutions to reduce the usernames and passwords students have to remember.

BO: I’m interested in the gap between our perception of what students know already and what I see. We assume they’re computer literate, but they use different sets of communication experiences – neither of my kids use email. You have to find out their preferred means of communication and increase the likelihood they’ll pick a message up. We need to look at these multiple identities and make use of them more effectively. You don’t want students in the staff room, but there are places in the physical world that are more appropriate, and we need to support them in the provision that is available.
MR: It’s an interesting idea. I think part of the problem is blurring identities and boundaries. I see myself as a person first, and I suppose it depends on confidence and preference. While philosophically I like to give people as wide a choice as possible, it needs to be offered within constraints. There is a limit to what I can do. It’s going to be a while before we can work out what those parameters are.

Jim Hesman, Coventry University: One thing that struck me about the projects – it does highlight the fact that for institutions in general we are remarkably poor in even knowing what students are doing, what they want, let alone trying to fulfil their expectations. What would you suggest about how to embed it in institutional practice.
RH: It’s not institutions that teach, it’s students who learn. It’s defining what limits there are in association to the students, and how institutions can flex within those boundaries.
NW: The other side of it is setting students’ expectations and what the boundaries are. One tutor does one thing, one tutor does something different, but that shouldn’t be changed halfway through the course.
MA: We do reviews at the end of each year, but in computing we did reviews every few months, which meant that we could feedback and bring up issues.
MR: I’m not sure how we can do this, but we need more conversations with students and find more opportunities to listen. We’re into a mass HE system where bigger is better. If you’ve got 600 students on a course, where do you find the chance to have those conversations?
MA: Student reps are available on courses. That’s what I did on our courses. People logged their concerns and we could put them forward. It helps to make students active.

Helen Beetham: I think there are ways in which education can behave like a service and ways in which it shouldn’t. Meeting students’ expectations should follow. Mabel talked about technological choices that were educationally meaningful, rather than just being flexible because students want services that are personalised. Students might not expect to be exposed to certain tools that academics use as a matter of course, but they hugely value that kind of exposure. That’s more valuable than chasing them across Facebook.

Greg thanked the panellists and attendees for their input and closed the session.