Higher fees mean higher student expectations…

Could the recent bill be a wake-up call rather than just a chance to hike up fees asks Peter Eyre, managing director, Meetoo

The Higher Education and Research Bill may have been passed in the nick of time before the close of parliament, but it’s still not clear what the forthcoming general election will mean for universities.

Even though universities can now increase their tuition fees, it will be three years before this rise has to be justified by the quality of teaching.  However, with the Tories refusing to budge on the inclusion of international students from net migration figures, market forces could well come into play within this period of grace. In other words, potentially dwindling numbers of prospective students faced with higher loans and higher interest rates may well vote with their feet and favour institutions with the highest National Student Survey (NSS) results.

So will universities use this as a wake-up call; an opportunity to review current teaching methods and implement new ideas to improve student engagement? While some institutions have been quick to embrace technology to help the learning process, others stick rigidly to the old template. “The definition of a lecture has become the process in which the notes of the teacher go to the notes of the student, without going through the brains of either,” write Don and Alex Tapscott in a LinkedIn article entitled Universities must enter the digital age or risk facing irrelevance.

Yet this traditional model is under threat from the students themselves. First this is happening through the use of smartphones during lectures, mainly for texting and internet surfing. This then has a negative impact on student engagement.

Engagement is becoming a huge buzz word in education and for good reason. In the Kirkpatrick Model, the worldwide standard for evaluating the effectiveness of training in the commercial world, the reaction of participants and the degree to which they are actively involved in and contributing to the learning experience – in other words, their engagement –  is the first level of evaluation of successful teaching. 

Most students are digital natives which means that they are unlikely to be engaged by the conventional and hierarchical lecture structure. They like to collaborate, they like immersion and interaction and have become used to fast results and answers.

Students learn, engage and absorb news throughout their daily lives on mobile devices, so to survive, lecturers must build on this dependence. 

Over the years some universities have attempted to enhance student engagement during lectures with clickers or student response systems. These have introduced the idea of polling students to test their understanding of a topic and detect gaps in knowledge. However, these clickers often became a burden to manage.

Now a number of universities are experimenting with a student response system which is accessed by downloading an app onto a phone or via a web link and entering a code. Students can use their own phones or tablets and there’s no extra devices to manage and maintain.

There’s now a virtual two-way link between student and the lecturer. Polls to test knowledge levels and understanding are invaluable to lecturer’s success in assessing learning and access to set these up via a PowerPoint Add-in allows for quick and simple set up before or even during class. Smartphone devices also enable students to direct questions to the lecturer, anonymously if they prefer. This fits neatly into another shift in the learning model; the move towards setting students computer-based learning tasks to complete in their own time and then using the lecture for thinking, discussing and challenging ideas rather than just taking in information.

Despite the expense and complexity of organisation-wide IT systems, it is often the simple and elegant solutions that become the most widely adopted.  Apps such as these described are affordable and won’t become burden on overheads. But they will help universities go some way to putting student engagement at the top of their agenda. 

by Peter Eyre, managing director, Meetoo


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