What works for students in digital education

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This article on student perceptions of ‘useful’ digital technologies identifies the gap between the potential of digital technologies for teaching and learning in higher education and the realities seen to date. The study presents the findings of a survey of students at two research-intensive universities in Australia. I think there are some important insights here to inform future reshaping of higher education following the Covid pandemic. This paper was written before the pandemic but may help universities move passed on almost wholly negative narratives of the student experience of the pivot to emergency remote teaching.

Two main factors: firstly, the popular yet problematic assumption about students as digital natives with expectations around social spaces that are highly social and always on’. Yet their digital literacies do not clearly translate for application to higher studies. Secondly, the use of digital technologies in education varies widely between disciplines and sub-disciplines – or even individual academics – and between students of different ages, interests or institutions.

The study aims to address gaps in research on students experiences of using digital technologies and the meanings placed on these technologies by students.

The survey gained 1658 valid responses from the two institutions. Respondents had a mean age of 22.5 years although the age range was 17 – 66.

I’ll just pick out a few of the findings that seem most relevant to the current context for higher education in 2020.

Most useful practices

Staying organised

Students continue to value how digital technologies support them in organising their studies. Digital technologies are valued as administrative tools rather than in students’ learning. They are used to keep track of deadlines and schedules, enable remote work through access to content and resources, and saving students’ time. Students report valuing the LMS as a stable location for access to information and content – the ‘Management’ emphasis of the acronym is well-judged. Digital technologies provide structure and stability for student learning experiences – a helpful finding for consideration of next-generation digital learning environments.

Knowing where resources are

Under the umbrella of learning, the most ‘useful’ practice was lecture recording and the ability to pause, rewind and review those lectures. So lecture capture provides possibility for better learning through spaced-repetition. But this research also identifies students feeling reassured that they could access lecture recordings even if they didn’t actually do so – the value is in knowing the lectures are there waiting for them!

Unsurprisingly, students also valued access to information and, in particular, to e-journals and e-books etc. as well as citation management. More interestingly, students sought to augment the university learning materials with other, less formal, sources like YouTube or Twitter.

Current implications

A key relevant conclusion form this paper is the importance of knowledge, understanding and empathy with students existing digital practices. This contrasts with the institutionally self-interested “abstracted rhetoric of ‘technology-enhanced-learning’ and suchlike” (p.1575).

The usefulness of digital technologies in educational logistics: locating resources as well as accessing information and course materials, is as much about the overall student experience and the transparency of the university as an institution as it is about learning. As the paper states, students perceived the benefits of digital technologies in largely ‘surface‘ terms and efficiency of task completion. Students (as a generalised grouping), have a distance to travel to embrace the creative, multimodal participatory and connective possibilities of digital education. Current digital technologies usage reflect the small ‘c’ conservative expectations of university teaching and learning. Developing and extending the digital learning literacies of students is, or should be, a key component of the socialisation of students into higher education and learning. Viewing recent press coverage of students’ experiences during the pandemic, both the logistical aspects of online teaching and learning and the development of relevant learning literacies are key to successful and sustainable university digital education strategies.

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