The e-learning effect

In a field that is constantly changing perhaps nothing in Higher Education is moving as fast as the technology it uses. Luke Dormehl reports

Referring to the use of electronic media and ICT technologies as part of the education system, e-learning has far from a fixed definition. Just a decade ago, ‘early adopter’ universities were just starting to explore the potential benefits of mobile and wireless learning. In the 10 years since, the mass availability of public and institutional wireless networks, emergence of new and powerful technologies (cloud computing, for instance), and the prevalence of a host of other similar innovations have changed the way universities operate and interact with their students when it comes to technological mediation.

“I started university in 2005 and had a completely different expectation of technology to that which I have today,” noted Emily-Ann Nash, who served as Vice President of Academic Affairs at University of Brighton Students Union.

“Many applications are now so user-friendly, and I use many technologies on a daily basis. I regularly use Google, e-books, YouTube and blogs. I have changed from using technology for social use to using it for study too. I use EndNote, listen to lectures for my post-graduate studies, access journals and listen to podcasts, sometimes while travelling to university on the bus.”

To help get to grips with the issues surrounding e-learning, University Business spoke with Sarah Knight, e-learning’s programme manager at Jisc, a registered charity which champions the use of digital technologies in UK education and research to support learning, teaching, research and administration.

“Our remit is to support colleges and universities as they implement digital technologies for education and research,” Nash said.

Jisc works with a large number of universities and post-16 HE institutions around the country, helping course leaders and administrators realise the best ways to use technology to enhance the student experience. “This might be anything from advising on the new technologies that are coming to the forefront, to advising on legal aspects of technology and the importance of accessibility,” Nash continued.

Befitting the innovation at the heart of technological development, a number of universities, colleges and other HE institutions have experimented with various different technology applications to augment the learning process in recent years. For instance, to help overcome some of the linguistic challenges in ESOL classes at City College Southampton, educators implemented an approach based on location-aware smartphones, thereby “providing [students with] opportunities to develop their linguistic skills in real and meaningful ways.” Many universities have also added virtual classroom facilities: allowing students to log in for distance learning sessions.

Who you calling a MOOC?

Perhaps the apex of this concept is the idea of MOOCs; the massive open online courses, which serve millions of online learners around the globe, offering hundreds of courses from a number of top-flight institutions.

MOOCs have been referred to in some quarters as higher education’s ‘Napster moment.’ This references the popular MP3 sharing service which threatened the way that the music industry operated and ushered in the cultural space into which iTunes was launched. Those working within education who worry about the negative impact such a technology could have question whether the Internet’s decentralised approach to control means that universities themselves will become an outdated commodity. After all, why have physical classrooms if everything can be downloaded to your computer via Skype?

However, far from an educational crisis, others express their belief that free online learning can sit side-by-side with traditional learning without cannibalising it. For evidence of this, look at Phonar, the enormously popular Coventry University photography course run by Jonathan Worth and Matt Johnston, which attracted more than 35,000 students from around the world over a four-week period in 2012.

Speaking about the project’s success and its dangers to traditional academia Coventry’s Associate Head of Department for Media, Jonathan Shaw, has observed that, “The idea that these courses were free haven’t meant students dont want to come to university. Within two years the photography course is the hardest to get into and we only accept one in 10 students that we interview. [Regarding the ‘Napster moment’, it’s important to note that] … the music industry didn’t die; it’s become something different, and I think education will naturally face that too. People still go to pop concerts because they want the physical experience.”

Learning on the cheap

“In times of economic uncertainty, challenge and change, innovation is needed more than ever,” Anne Miller, Director of The Creativity Partnership, pointed out.

While this is absolutely true, it is equally possible to misinterpret the core idea of this concept: to imagine that technology (and, in this case, e-learning) will help universities run at a reduced cost.

However, as Jisc’s Sarah Knight said, this idea remains for the timebeing a myth. “When we talk with students there is still very much an expectation on their part for fully-equipped universities. Even just in terms of technology, students demand very effective Wi-Fi networks, along with on-site printers and computers which they can use.

“Perhaps over time there will be an increased expectation that students will bring in their own equipment to use – which would result in cost saving for universities – but that is at least a few years away.”

On top of this, there is also the misconception that e-learning is a cheaper option than more traditional forms of teaching and learning. “That is not correct,” Knight added. “If a university is looking at creating materials online, these need to be pedagogically sound and require a huge amount of time to both moderate and update.”

It is for this reason why universities should carefully consider the implementation of new technologies, exploring the costs, benefits and likely impacts so that they can secure the best return on their investment.

“Technology is an investment,” Knight continued, “And it is important to think of it that way. But it is one that universities should be able to recoup over the long term, both in financial terms and also in terms of the positive impact that it can have on the overall student experience.”

It is also important to observe that, in an age in which universities are increasingly moving away from fixed equipment to open data systems and institutional platforms, physical IT facilities still have the ability to act as a valuable recruiting tool – ‘wowing’ students in a way that, like good sports facilities, can help a particular HE institution stand out in a crowded field. North Hertfordshire College, a general further education college based in Stevenage, Hitchin and Letchworth, opened its new Stevenage Centre in 2003 and has been seeing the benefits of a state-of-the-art learning environment ever since.

Comprising an array of IT facilities, study spaces, café, shop and access to guidance officers and learning support needs, the centre has 3,500 students use its facilities each day. Similar stories have played out around the country with numerous other educational facilities willing to invest in physical facilities.

“A lot of our recent research has looked at students’ expectations with regards to technology,” said Knight.

“What we find is that students entering higher education are still looking for the traditional university experience in terms of the personal interaction they will have with tutors and fellow students. Especially when you’re dealing with a group of people who grew up with computers widely available, today’s students see technology as something that underpins and not governs, their learning environment.’