You Can Do It (be a student online presenter, that is!)

“Let’s have an online conference,” I said
“Okay,” said my friendly Associate Dean
“Let’s make it really big,” I said
“Good idea,” came the reply
That was in September. We set a date – June 30th, and decided that it would take place over a week. Now it is only six months away and we have started work in earnest. Unusually, this is not aimed primarily at giving academics a chance to talk to each other, or even postgraduate students, but rather is aimed at our 30,000 or so undergraduates. Quite an undertaking?
Let me give you some background. As I have spoken about previously studying at The Open University can be an isolating experience. Our students have to dig in for a six year haul. A few do get to the end more quickly, many do not, and can take up to 10 or more years to complete. The major problem for our students (which I assume is true for all distance learners and many part-time students) is motivation. It’s not that our students lack motivation, but rather that they have to sustain it for a long time and for the most part, in isolation.
I think all of us know how demoralising it can be to feel that everybody is doing better than you are. These feelings of inadequacy are particularly acute amongst students making them very susceptible to stories from other students who are finding the course easier, completing their assignments more efficiently and getting better grades than any lecturer awards. I can well remember sitting in coffee bars of Cardiff Students Union (where I did my degree) and listening to students who claimed to be better read, better informed and better marked than the rest. Perhaps they were but if I’m honest few of those people got Firsts!
The more astute amongst us labelled these people for what they were: bull-shitters. But, I wasn’t aware until much later what an insidious effect these people could have.
Now, imagine that your only source of information is a forum where you are a little scared to post in case your ‘stupidity’ is exposed. Imagine the effect of reading posts by students who claim to be weeks ahead, and getting grades in the 90%’s. In the coffee bar situation, it is easy to find people that are doing worse than you, or to find people to tell you not to worry even if you are a bit behind. It’s also relatively easy to find somebody, often a fellow student or one in the year above, to explain the bits you don’t get.
For distance students the b-s effect is to increase your paranoia, to convince you that you are incapable of studying and eventually to convince you that you are a fraud. Once you internalise the idea that you are not capable of study, then it is a short step to passively withdrawing. In effect, you simply stop studying. Initially nobody will notice, why should they?
This is the background to our online conference. Called Student Connections, its aim is to bring students together in an environment where they can meet and talk about any topic that takes their fancy. However, this is to be a proper academic conference, and my Faculty colleagues have been generous in agreeing to be keynote speakers. So, yes, students can be presenters but they can also hear about some of our most ground-breaking research.
In order to make the most of the online environment we are in the process of putting together a multimedia programme that will be innovative and interactive. We will encourage students and our academic colleagues to think beyond the rather stale and predictable formats of most conferences to embrace audio-visual multimedia techniques which will make the conference both a great conference and a showcase for what, with a little imagination, e-learning might look like.

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I Can Learn (but can you?)

Okay, so there I was minding my own business and checking my emails. You know how it is, its the end of July, and you’re mainly deleting rubbish. But one caught my eye. It was from a colleague, and widely circulated. “I’ve come across this article” he said “might there be some lessons in here about online education more generally that we need to debate and consider further?”
The article was by an American academic, Jennifer Morton and I clicked on the link to find out what lessons I might learn.
The article, a blog piece, compares the experience of students giving presentations ‘in-class’ to the future dominated by MOOCs. Whilst recognising that MOOCs appear to increase access to higher education Morton then claims that, “the adoption of online education by large public universities threatens to harm the very students for whom a college education is an essential leg up into the middle class.”
This is because the skills conferred by a ‘middle class’ education including “social, emotional, and behavioral competencies” are lacking in the home lives of poorer students. These skills, it seems, can only be learned in physical classrooms as poorer students are able to learn from their better educated and more socially articulate peers. Thus, “our priority should be to offer students, in particular those who are not already part of the middle class, a classroom in which they can learn to navigate middle-class social norms, be comfortable with and develop relationships with students from different backgrounds, and speak their minds.”
My initial reaction to this was that it is wrong to assume that online learning and MOOCs should be regarded as the same thing. That the evidence that students can only learn these social skills in face to face settings is asserted rather than proved. I wrote back to the list that the initial email had been circulated to pointing this out and arguing that the author was so keen to disprove online tuition that they failed to see the inadequacies of face to face teaching which is held up as a gold standard to which online teaching can never hope to compare.
On re-reading the blog piece by Jennifer Morton, I would also say that it seems incredibly patronising to poorer students. The only value of education seems to be to drag them from the gutter into the respectable middle class. It is almost as if they are being judged solely on their inability to know which knife to use at the dinner table. I think I misunderstood the article because I had assumed it was about the value of face to face teaching against that offered by online alternatives. It is actually about how to create a middle class by taking small numbers of lower class students and applying peer pressure to improve their middle class credentials. I suspect that many middle class educators would agree with the sentiment expressed by Rex Harrison when he sang of a gender he could not understand in the film My Fair Lady ‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’, adapted to ‘why can’t those rough types be more like us.’
Whether or not the goal of expanding higher education is to make us all middle class, there remains the issue of whether online tuition serves the interests of students or is simply a pale reflection of classroom based provision. One of my colleagues in replying to my assertion that face to face is held up as a gold standard replied unequivocally that “excellent face to face teaching” was indeed a gold standard.
The key here is probably in the word “excellent”. What is excellent face to face teaching? And, what is it about online tuition that means it is destined to fail to reach these dizzying heights?
I have taught extensively in both face to face settings and online, and I have also attended others sessions in both. An excellent teaching session, in my view, is one that engages students, stimulates them and encourages them to return. I have certainly seen outstanding face to face sessions, but I have also seen truly inspirational online teaching. It is not the mode of delivery that is important but the enthusiasm, commitment and imagination of the tutor that makes the difference.
Whist I am certainly aware of innovation in face to face teaching I only have to glance at a website such as TeachThought to see that the majority of innovation is happening online. In other words, whilst developing our teaching skills is important regardless of mode of delivery, if we want to be excellent that can no longer be achieved by fixating nostalgically on a mythical past of “excellent” face to face teaching.

A change is gonna come, (or maybe it’s here)

Everything changes. After all evolution seems to be hard wired into us, yet for all sorts of reasons we cling to our old behaviours. This seems as true in education as it is in other parts of our lives. Some people, take a bow Mr Gove, fetishize the past to such an extent that the only explanation is that they must have been born in a previous century, accidentally frozen and then thawed out in time to visit misery on the rest of us.
Most academics are, and here’s a shocker, quite good at passing exams. For us, lectures, seminar papers and final exams worked. So, if they worked for us, they should work for everybody, right? Well, no actually. The notion that because something worked in the past, it is fit for the present is, frankly, a nonsense. That modern students should be forced to sit in rows listening to the sage on the sage says much about the sage and little about the needs of the student.
A recent paper in ELiSS (Enhanced Learning in the Social Sciences) argued that social tools, such as blogs or wikis, “allow the expression of learners’ thought, opinions, and ideas, enabling the construction of an online presence that arches over many spaces.” The authors, Monica Aresta, Luis Pedro, Antonio Moreira and Carlos Santos report on the use of what they call ‘personal learning environments’. These are online spaces where students can build and enhance their digital presence.
It is probably worth pointing out that their sample was 22 students taking a Masters in Multimedia Communication. One would, no doubt, expect such students to have a higher than average digital literacy, and to be open to this kind of experimentation. But, what of the rest of us? Indeed, for those of us teaching in the more ‘traditional’ social sciences or arts/humanities, what lessons?
I may be mistaken but I don’t think our students are as wedded to, so-called traditional pedagogies as many academics remain. But, and I believe this is a myth needing busting, neither are all young people digitally connected.
The key point about the Aresta et al study is a recognition that almost all of us now have an online identity, and that this has become as real as our other identities. By failing to acknowledge and nurture the online identities of our students, we do not just do them a disservice, but put ourselves into the position of evolutionary throwbacks.