Technology, HE and spoon-feeding students

2010 Canon Photo5 Brief 5: Inspired by S by Jessica M. Cross, on Flickr

Alison Seaman has written an interesting piece on Personal Learning Networks: Knowledge Sharing as Democracy.  This sentence in particular caught my attention:

Underlying the development of a PLN is the need for individual learners to be able to have the capacity for self-direction, which requires a higher level of learning maturity—an absence of which may represent a barrier for a percentage of adults to learn in this way. Also crucially important for networked learning is the level of development of individuals’ digital and web literacies in order for members to optimally filter out ‘noise’ and contribute to the health of the network.

Which got me thinking … Does the way that we generally use technology in higher education tend to support spoon-feeding and traditional sage on the stage approaches to teaching and learning rather than helping students to develop digital and web literacies to support more self-directed learning and skills for lifelong learning?  Our students can read announcements in the VLE and download lecture powerpoints, other announcments and important infromation are emailed. Long gone are the days of having to trek to check a departmental noticeboard in a building where you rarely had lectures. I often hear colleagues say we’re spoon-feeding students these days, they don’t know how easy they’ve got it.

Back in 2009 JISC published a report Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World, which highlighted that students had little insight into how Web 2.0 tools could support their learning as opposed to their social lives. Three and a half years on I wonder how much things have changed?  How many students have the skills to develop a PLN as outlined in Alison’s article?  There are some medical students writing super blog posts, engaging in interesting twitter conversations, making great contributions to the #ukmeded twitter chat, developing their own learning resources and peer learning initiatives, they are doing some really great stuff oline and have developed very supportive PLNs. But these students are the exception rather than the rule.  Does that matter, was it any different 20 odd years ago?  Would I be one of these connected students if I was an undergraduate now, would I engage with Twitter and blogs if I’d had to use them for my learning when I was a student?

We recently used Twitter to support teaching on flu epidemics as part of our public health theme.  Some students took to it quite enthusiastically and really enjoyed the interaction with tutors, but the vast majority engaged because they had to and I suspect most will not continue to engage with Twitter to support their learning.  Alan Cann has used tools such as FriendFeed and Google+ in learning activities with his students at Leicester over the past few years but this year decided to make use of Google+ voluntary and has not linked it to assessment.  As a consequence very few students have actually enagaged with it and Alan is having more interaction with his students through Dark Social tools such as email and the VLE.

So why don’t students get how tools like Twitter and Google+ etc can support their learning? Why do they stop using them once the piece of work has been assessed?  It took me sometime to get Twitter, and it took a while for the penny to drop with Google+.  Are we just too impatient with students who don’t get this stuff, forgetting the learning curve we went through?  Are students too impatient to get how web and digital literacies can support their learning, do they think we’re just trying to be trendy using Twitter in our teaching and it’s all pretty pointless?  Or is the problem linked to how we’ve used VLEs to largely transmit information and a wider issue in higher education around students being spoon-fed and not developing the skills to become independent learners as outlined in this piece by Peter Ovens in THE from November 2011?

When we asked our 2nd year students back in 2009 whether they were interested in us running some infromal sessions on using RSS and Web 2.0 tools there was large scale disinterest.  A few months ago when we surveyed all five years of students the pendulum had swung to most students being interested.  This semester we’ll hopefully be running sessions for staff and students to share tips on how they use different tools and apps to support their learning.  It will be interesting to see how this approach goes and whether it proves any more successful than using tools in timetabled teaching activities. I’m hoping it will be and that the students who come along will pass on what they think is useful to their peers.