What sort of technologies do students coming into further and higher education expect their institutions to provide?
- Access to the institutional services and the whole of the Web via any number of devices.
- Comprehensive organisational information about their course (dates, times, locations, requirements).
- Access to information resources that will help them to complete assignments. These will include resources generated by the course (reading lists, PowerPoints, lecture notes, videos of lectures) and access to library catalogues and traditional sources in digital form (journals, ebooks etc.)
I am of course simplifying a little here; for a more sophisticated picture I can recommend looking at the various outputs from the project so far: we undertook a literature review, interviewed those providing digital services and talked to students about their perceptions of what was, and what should be, provided.
For me one of the most interesting aspects of phase 1 was the difference between students’ immediate responses to questions about digital provision and their more nuanced answers when gently pressed into deeper discussion. The danger highlighted here, as reflected in a number of sources in the literature review, is that, in our eagerness to ‘meet expectations’, we gather only a surface understanding of motivations and learning practices, leading to strategies which respond to only some of the ways in which our students operate. This is particularly concerning given that students’ day-to-day practices now go so far beyond the boundaries of the institution.
Another intriguing question that arises from phase 1 is why there is such an apparent lack of expectation that any formal learning will take place in the digital environment. There was little or no demand for discourse online of any kind. In fact, as the three point summary above indicates, the digital realm was viewed very much as a one-way street for information consumption.
Here again the picture is more complex than it first appears as we know that students are keen to connect to Facebook and other ‘social’, potentially discursive, environments. The extent to which these ‘user-owned’ spaces are used for learning is not clear but perhaps the ‘site’ of learning online will always be in the students’ domain, leaving the institution to provide information rather than collaborative spaces?
Whatever the case, it is inevitable that incoming expectations of the digital environment are largely set by students’ experience of technology at school. Whilst most schools do have VLEs and digital whiteboards, for example, their use may be seeding the one-way-information-street expectation. This is one of the areas we are planning to look into in more detail during phase 2 of the project.
Overall, I would argue that it should be obvious that incoming students don’t understand how to ‘do’ higher education and that their expectations of the digital environment reflect this. I believe that, in tandem with meeting expectations, we have a duty to foster students’ critical use of the digital environment as a reflection of our pedagogical values. Access to information is crucial but we need to ensure that, in striving for efficiency, we don’t perpetuate the assumption that our digital services are only provided for utilitarian consumption.