When You Ask The Question, “Are Learning Technologies Fit For Purpose?” #digifest15

“Asking the question is probably the most important thing.”

Lawrie Phipps made the point as he finished chairing a debate over, “Are learning technologies fit for purpose?”

It may sound dull, but his point was the best way to sum up the session between Dave White and Donna Lanclos at the Jisc Digifest 2015.

Earlier in the day, Anna Notaro told me that she doesn’t like either/or questions. While it does help me write short and punchy tweets, I do agree.

So, are learning technologies fit for purpose?

It’s an impossible question, as it involves individual decisions as much as it does group decisions. It involves education providers and administrators as much as it does learners.

Do learning technologies fit YOUR purpose? Can these tools give you what you want? And if you don’t know what you want, is this method working for you?

Dave White said that learning technologists and other professionals forget how experienced and confident they are. He suggested that if you could go back to when you were 18–just starting out at university–you would be far less likely to have the same drive to make your point. The nervewracking experience of speaking in a lecture or seminar consisted mainly of trying not to make a fool out of yourself. Newbies to the system don’t want to fall at the first hurdle. There’s so much at stake, or so it feels anyway.

One solution is to provide safe spaces so that students can build their confidence. This requires a somewhat locked-in approach using internal systems, rather than pointing toward online services that can publish work for all the world to see.

key

Use a VLE or use WordPress? Donna Lanclos explained that institutions have made a promise to educate their students. Learning and subsequent application of publicly used resources will provide the best opportunity for students to develop worthwhile skills. Using a VLE, she argued, doesn’t provide the same learning opportunity. Lanclos expressed difficulty in seeing why it’s so difficult to assist students in confident use of open web tools and to invest money saved from ditching VLEs on hiring more staff instead.

Questions from the audience were useful, as they looked at the flaws in the either/or questioning:

  • Something isn’t fit for purpose, but what is it? Is it the technology, is it the institution, is it something else? This needs assessing.
  • Why are we talking about a choice? You can have both a VLE and an open web.
  • We need to equip people to be competent in the open web. This requires a continuum model. Not just about knowledge in terms of content, but which technologies to use and when?
  • The reason we have VLEs is due to standards issues. Until you can bring diversity together in a reasonable format, a VLE is a practical necessity.
  • What IS the purpose of learning technologies? They are fit for purpose only if you identify what their purpose is.
  • You may want to use a social service for personal reasons, but that doesn’t mean you wish to use it as part of your course.

Lanclos said that it’s important to take responsibility for students’ learning when they do not have the understanding or experience of necessary tools. So, she continued, why is that different via the open web than through a VLE? Her closing argument stated that university is a much more holistic project than VLEs allow for. The fact they are locked in ends up sheltering students from the outside world and more practical learning.

White closed by explaining that learning technologies reflect the purpose our institutions have chosen to take. They provide a platform to frame learning around the course, rather than the individual. People can be helped through the process of education.

This takes us back to the remark Lawrie Phipps made to close the session:

“Asking the question is probably the most important thing.”

I saw neither Lanclos nor White as particularly wrong in their assertions. Such an ambiguous and open question is important because it shows how diverse the student population has become over the decades. And yet, as one audience member remarked, pedagogy over the last 20 years hasn’t been particularly transformed.

Asking the question, “Are learning technologies fit for purpose?” is a great way to continue exploring transformation that requires technology. But rather than focus on the technology at the centre, focus on the learner, on society, and on the future.

Your Minimum Editing Route and How Fonts Can Help You Spot Typos

Your Minimum Editing Route

I work with words all the time. I have to be careful not to gloss over my writing. If I do, I risk missing typos and worse.

Even with a clear focus, it’s bad enough. Your focus is on conveying meaning more than it is on uncovering typos.

But there’s hope. When you edit your work, go through several runs at the text. First, read for overall flow. Second, read for clarity. Third, read for typos. This should be your minimum editing route.

Editing for different reasons each time helps you to focus on the particular task at hand. These tasks require thinking processes that do not gel with each other. If you tackle them all at the same time, it’s like ineffective multitasking.

Read out loud and look at each word, no matter how trivial. When you read with purpose, you’ll trip over sentences that clearly need reworking. When you look at each word, the mistakes stand out.

letter blocks

There’s another magic trick that’s easy and effective. Change font!

Yes, simply change the look of your text so it looks new to you.

Copy and paste your text into another document…You don’t want to mess about with your sparkly live document now, do you?

Then change the font. It doesn’t matter which font you choose, so long as you can read it. As you read through the draft, you’ll notice new things (both good and bad) as your brain is tricked into thinking it’s looking at a new document.

Try with different fonts until you find one that’s a good combination of readable and accessible for you to review. After a few uses, you may want to find a new font so you don’t get too familiar with any particular typeface. Once you’re used to it, you won’t be so effective when reviewing your draft.

My own method is to use a few good fonts and rotate their use. That way, I can use the same fonts and not get too familiar with them. I can even throw a curveball and use a completely different font on a particularly challenging piece of text. Anything to get me focused where it counts.

Which fonts would you recommend?

typefaces

What Are Student Perceptions Of Debt?

This week has been National Student Money Week. So there’s no better time (if there is ever a GOOD time!) to talk about student debt. *shudder*

what are student perceptions of debt

Living costs are an issue just as much fees, if not more so. Hidden course costs, social outlay, not to mention basic needs like food, drink and accommodation; it all adds up. And the more it adds up, the more likely students are to get into debt.

Now a new report suggests that graduates may end up repaying tens of thousands more on their student loans. It’s no wonder some people are put off attending university.

While student loans constitute a special type of debt that only begins to be repaid once a graduate is earning more than £21,000, it is still seen by many as a scary debt. A debt that has little chance of going away until 30 years have passed.

Debt is a common concern

The UNITE Student Experience Survey 2014 discovered that many applicants feel in the dark regarding their finances. And while current students have a much better view of their finances, only 56% state that their financial streams are sufficient. That still leaves nearly a quarter (24%) of undergraduate respondents saying their finances are not sufficient, and another fifth uncertain of their position.

Couple this with the survey’s finding that finances are the most frequent concern for students whilst at university and it is clear that a sizeable proportion of students are not comfortable with their debt experiences.

A surprising 28% of students polled claimed not to have any debt whatsoever. Does the high proportion suggest that not all debt is necessarily considered a debt? For instance, undergraduates are far more likely to use bank overdrafts than applicants assume will be the case (28% of students, compared with 11% of applicants). Given the percentage of respondents claiming not to have been in any debt whatsoever, it could be that they do not even see an overdraft as a debt in the first place.

bank notes

Fear doesn’t always lead to confrontation

So where does that leave perceptions of debt? Although tuition fees have been the focus of much national media coverage, it is unlikely that students see fees as an area where savings can be made.

Because while tuition fees are variable, up to £9,000, institutions tend to charge close to the maximum anyway. Students do not see enough difference between universities to influence their choices. One study also suggests that bursaries and other financial incentives are rarely investigated until much later in the process, if at all.

This suggests that many applicants have background fears about debt, but do not confront them. This may be due to a lack of time, or a failure to see the importance of such a worry. One way or another, financial concerns make an impact on behaviour that is sometimes indirect and unconscious.

Money and debt are, therefore, motivators that can work in negative ways. But attitudes and perceptions are difficult to work out without detailed, lengthy, costly research.

HEFCE analyses POLAR3 codes, which refer to postcode areas where people are more or less likely to participate in higher education. We can use these to assess educational disadvantages regarding HE, although HEFCE state that POLAR3 codes are not a reliable indication of disadvantaged areas in general. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see no notable differences from respondents to the UNITE survey regarding attitudes toward debt across the POLAR3 codes.

The survey did find some differences. Those in category 1 of POLAR3 (least likely to be participating in HE) were found more likely to be thinking about their job or career, as well as thinking about their family. Those in category 5 (most likely to participate) were more likely to live in university halls than categories 1 and 2.

Despite these findings, group 1 respondents were less likely to state that their intention to live at home was driven by it being more affordable. This is backed up by research that found that fear of debt was not a reliable predictor of staying at home for university to save money. What we cannot tell behind this is whether indirect and unconscious attitudes played a hidden part in the process.

The same research, by Callender and Jackson, also stated that low-income students were more likely to see the cost of their university experience as a debt and not an investment.

This difference between investment and debt can make an impact on student decisions. A 2010 Policy Exchange report stated that it is difficult for students to make rational decisions surrounding university when debts are involved. The report said, “At present such data is worryingly thin, and would-be students are left largely in the dark about many questions that they consider to be important”.

money close up

Information alone is not enough

Fast forward to 2015 again and policy has developed that centres on providing more information to prospective students through as they form the ‘heart of the system’. From Key Information Sets to improved support services once on campus, one thing students don’t seem to be lacking in is information.

But does all this upfront information make much difference to perceptions of debt? Do applicants feel reassured by promises of good value, good resources, and good job prospects?

Callender argues that information alone is not enough to improve the student experience. She also says that the game has changed, calling the 2012/13 reforms ‘more extreme’. For those in less advantaged positions, Callender suggests that the new system is more likely to reduce their chances of entering higher education and that HE could become more elitist rather than inclusive.

It’s clear that certain perceptions of debt can lead to decisions that are not always in the best interests of the individual. What is less clear is understanding who is most at risk and how they reached that perception of debt. We may find that the same concerns result in vastly different actions. Some people will not go to university at all, while others attend but tread a careful path. Others may ignore their situation altogether until it is too late.

We should stop and think carefully about this uncertainty. It is easy to shrug off when application figures to university are still healthy despite £9k fees. But that is not the whole picture. A worrying number of students will experience university in such a way that is potentially detrimental to their participation in HE and to their future beyond university.

Debt isn’t going away, so perceptions make a difference. For those 44% of students from the Unite Student Survey with uncertain or insufficient finances, it is vital to ensure that they not only receive advice and guidance where necessary, but also gain support to improve their personal perceptions of debt.

Nobody enjoys being in debt so it is crucial that students understand different types of debt and shape their perceptions of them accordingly. Only then can students respond in a way that gives them the best chance of dealing with their situation positively.

This article arose from a data hackathon, run by Unite Students and NUS Services in partnership with Wonkhe. The dataset is drawn from the Students Matter survey conducted Dec 2013-Jan 2014 by NUS Services and published in May 2014 by Unite Students.

Technology Can Help The Learning Process, But It’s Not The Whole Answer

Technology Learning Process

Times Higher Education reported on a “Future Proofing Universities” seminar. Sixth-form students at the event shared their appreciation of technology, but warned that it should not be used to replace established methods of teaching.

In my last post, I stressed how important it is to keep finding new ways to learn, so long as past approaches are not ignored.

I see three purposes in which technology can assist and enhance learning that students will be grateful for:

  1. Choice – In my last post, I stressed how important it is to keep finding new ways to learn. They don’t replace what has gone before, but they open up availability to those who cannot engage with or do not have the necessary resources to access current methods. Breakthroughs in technology continue to open new doors. The only reason to close old doors is when all use and interest has disappeared. Dead isn’t dead until it is truly gone. While it exists, there is a place for it, even if it has been demoted from a previous position of prominence.
  2. Accessibility – Preparation, organisation, ease of use. Technology should help facilitate in these areas. That’s why a university website with lots of video and opportunities to connect can win over potential students. Think about what comes before the learning and what allows the learning to blossom as opposed to what directly delivers the learning.
  3. Combination – Times Higher Education noted that a Year 13 student said universities should “combine not replace“. An additional strand to current learning methods is appreciated far more than a different approach to methods altogether. Either let the new strand form a relevant part of the process or introduce it as one choice among several (see Point 1).

Rise of the Tools?

Advances in technology enhance the scope for building new tools. Universities are, understandably, trying to make the most of the new technology and tools.

At the same time, it’s easy to forget that tools are not the answer. The answer lies with you:

“…tools are only tools. Rely on them & you let tools rule you. Learn to use them, don’t seek their help.” – [Source]

Pick a question… Technology forms only part of the answer. We can build the rest of the answer through our interactions with technology. Where that takes us, who knows?

And since we’re creating the road as we’re walking down it, that’s why it’s better to control the tools. We may not be able to determine the future exactly how we want it, but we should at least try through our own choices.