Tuesday, 14 September 2010

What's the point of using the internet for studies?


I've just been in a rather heated team meeting during which a colleague and I presented on this new My Sunderland space, in which we highlighted the potential benefits of engaging with students in forms like online blogs.  We suggested that they are great for posting information, files, starting discussions, pointing to related links, etc.  Also, strong students tend to appreciate the capacity for engaging in online discussions that pique their interest, and past experience has proven that they can often assist their peers (by working through complex issues of by pointing to relevant online resources).

We pointed out that student lifestyles and the ways they engage with academic content have changed, and that we can adapt to these changes without having to change our current practices too much.  Data form our Virtual Learning Environment shows that students are accessing online notes at rather unusual hours and on unexpected days (including Christmas Day!).

Currently, as the module leader for a module (MAC201) with a large cohort I find myself dealing with multiple student questions on the same topic, and that I encounter an awful lot of repetition in my workload as I attempt to fend these off.  This was one of the reasons why I have, in the past, created student help files and provided annotated student essays as example resources.  Student feedback on my modules have been quite positive about providing these kinds of tools/resources.  One problem though is that the VLE is rather stilted and clunky place for hosting discussions.


There was quiet a bit of resistance to the idea that staff can create blogs or communities around the material they teach.  Some of the concerns that were vocalised coalesced around the following points


  • Additional workload burden for staff - who polices the space or ensures that students are on the right track?  How much extra time will this take staff to get familiar with posting content?
  • No evidence that students benefit from online discussion space
  • Fear of technology - Not all staff are technologically au fait so this might require staff development
  • Anxiety that online replaces physical - staff were fearful that students would abandon physical sessions for 'inane' online 'status updates' that were poor replacements for engagement with staff
The argument was a little heated and rigidly entrenched. The majority of staff seemed to reject the idea that online blog or communities are adequate tools for academic engagement.  Do staff and/or students benefit from using these tools?  I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on this matter





JP Green said...

I have said enough - it seems that if you dare engage/embrace/entertain the notion of e-learning or communicate using new (God it's not even new is it?) forms of delivery system, then you're the enemy - driving the knife into traditional (an elitist tradition) modes of teaching/learning for the sake of jumping on a supposed bandwagon (albeit a bandwagon that left Dodge many moons ago). The argument that is thrown at anyone wishing to move forward is that the bulb of virtual learning is snuffing out the candle of traditional education.
If we're to dismiss supplementary learning then let's throw away module guides, recommended reading (not essential) lists and other peripheral information - let's banish the student to the library and tell them to read, read, read! There is nothing else. And of course, journals and books are so cutting edge, giving students the very latest research despite the 18 month turn around from writing to publication.
Sod the democratisation of education - trust only in the word as stored by the mighty library. If it's not on paper it stinks :)

Simon Barnett said...

I might be preaching to the converted but anyway...

At my current institution, University of Nottingham, there is a strong e-learning community and this community covers academics and support staff from such varied subjects as Veterinary Medicine to Physical Anatomy. E-learning is used as a catch all term for anything that is put on the VLE and by extension, the internet itself.

Whilst staff initially had the same worries as outline in the original post about time burdens, no evidence to back up the plans, the fear of technology and the lack of class attendance, gradually and very slowly these fears are now set to one side.

Surely preparing something for the internet, VLE , or as in your example, MySunderland, is no different from preparing material for a class or seminar? Putting material online for students to view can only enrich their educational experience by allowing a deeper discussion of the topic when you next meet.

This same point can be applied to the lack of evidence, whilst I cannot quote empirical data, anecdotal evidence I have heard from academics, including UoN's VC has been overwhelmingly positive as they recognise the benefits of allowing the students to have another way to learn. One senior academic was actually asked when his next podcast was going to be available as the students in his current lecture were using them for deeper understanding of the subjects between lectures.

Fear of technology is something that, in my opinion cannot be easily overcome, however if staff can type a word document, prepare a powerpoint or even simply send an email then there are tools, free tools available to help them create online learning material for their students.

Again, the fear over lack of attendance is a common one that I come across. We have recently introduced interactive teaching rooms (ITRs) that include automated lecture capture systems. The quality is not as high as other methods of video lectures but that is another issue all together. The captured lecture is automatically uploaded to a streaming server and the url is sent to the academic. The academic then chooses when they copy and paste the url into the email, VLE or whatever form of communication they use to get it out to students.

It might be in time for revision purposes toward the end of the semester or it might be as an update throughout the module. If the module is repeated in the second semester or even the following year, the first lot of recordings can be taken down and deleted...

Certainly at Nottingham there is a greater pressure on the academic staff to be at the edge of learning technology due to its current status as one of the Russell Group Universities and the cost of a student's education, the institution's standing in surveys like the NSS and others but the same pressures are felt just as keenly elsewhere in the sector.

All of that is before we get onto other areas like OpenEducational Resources, YouTube Edu or iTunesU!

Video Producer, Learning Technology Section, UNiversity of Nottingham
(Former University of Sunderland technician)

TylerMakesMeLaugh said...

I found online publications to be just as informative, if not more helpful than those you would find in the library. However, it was not always clear the work you were reading was written by an academic.

The blog discussions is a good idea as most students will spend whole days on their laptops and have the option to engage in work, as god forbid you should leave the house for research.

Teachers/lectures should not be required to use this service if they feel it is a)unnecessary or b)learning to use the tool will be too much like hard work...
If when the stats come back at the end of the year and those that have chosen to use the tool have achieved higher than the library based students, it'll be clear it is a good idea

Of course, everyone reading this is already slanted towards using the service otherwise we wouldn't be on here in the first place.

Nick Cope said...

The following was posted by Patty Zimmerman in the US about using new media in teaching on an experiemntal film list I subscribe to. Patty was one of Julia Knights Keynote speakers at the Future Histories confrence hosted in Sunderland a year or two back..

1. Use websites on the syllabus and have
students INTERACT with the website

2. use blogs and require blogging and require

3. require students to participate in and
comment on smart blogs in our field (there are a
lot, in fact, I have one myself)

4. Use blackboard and post your websites

5. Do webinars and conference calls (it's free,
they dial in) with people in the field who have
knowledge you want them to know. I taught a
course a few years ago and we had Scott
MacDonald as a "course listserv" guest. I
taught a course in film festivals, online, this
summer, and we did four conference calls
withpeople in the field, requiring students to
read the websites and bios BEFORE the networking

6. About ten years ago, our own Tony Conrad had
me on a conference call with his class to
discuss an article I had written. I think he
had me call into a phone line he put on speaker
phone. I had a blast. I didni't have to travel
to Buffalo, and I enjoyed it and felt comraderie
with Tony.

7. Use Wikis to engage dialogue

8. Use teleconferencing to bring in
conversations with people around the world

9. If you can't find a book on a topic, that
means your class it breaking new ground. Treat
it like a film festival and bring people
involved in those organizations or those films
into your class via all of the above--see if
your school can get them some minimal honoraria
or trade them something.

10. Be optimistic, have fun, let go of old
assumptions, invent new ways to invite students
into the field through engagement.

All for now--good luck. Pedagogy is changing,
and it's really been an eye opener for me. We no
longer need to wait for books to be available,
since most books now don't fit most film
classes, they are monographs.

Thanks, Tony, for making me think.

Patty Zimmermann

Rob said...

Nick, if there was a "like" button on here I'd have clicked it for this post

Rob said...


Sorry about the delayed post - Blogger placed your post in a spam queue which I hadn't seen. Great input thought and I'll be using some of your points in a future session with staff. Sounds like Nottingham is working out well for you?

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