Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Teachers, Students and Learning Technology

The ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science runs a Blended Learning Reading Group. The next meeting is Wednesday 19th January, 12pm in the Ian Ross Conference Room, North Road, Canberra (BYO lunch). The paper under discussion will be Enhancing Learning Through Technology: When Students Resist the Change from the Ascilite 1995 Conference:

"As a general matter, innovation represents change, and there is usually built-in resistance to change" (Maier and Weidner, 1975, p. 70).

Where the introduction of computers in learning involves providing students with greater autonomy as learners, this commonly conflicts with students' past educational experiences and can require a shift in their conceptions of what learning involves and what constitutes appropriate roles of students and teachers. Student resistance to the inevitable stress of such change is to be expected, irrespective of the potential learning benefits of introducing the technology. Factors that can aggravate or alleviate such resistance are discussed, with some illustration from a computer facilitated, problem based course in Forestry.


computer-aided learning; self-directed learning, conceptions of learning, conceptual change, stress; change management ...

From: Enhancing Learning Through Technology: When Students Resist the Change from the Ascilite 1995 Conference, Gerlese Ã…kerlind and Chris Trevitt, ANU
This seems a curious choice of a paper, 1995 seeming like an eon ago in e-learning terms. However, while technologies come and go, the principles remain much the same. The paper reminds us that it is the education and students which need to be kept in mind.

This paper discusses the negative comments which teachers may get from their students about the use of educational technology. It argues there is a danger in failing to address these concerns.

However, it seems to me that this paper is very dated. The ANU introduced its second generation of Learning Management System (LMS) last year (Moodle replacing Web CT). My impression, and the formal feedback from my students, indicates no resistance from the students to the use of the technology. The students find the use of computers, the Internet and the web for learning as being normal. In my experience, the area of resistance and the problems with adapting are from university academic and administrative staff.

Therefore the questions in this paper could be redirected from student to the staff. For example, "What Are We Really Asking of Staff?". Self-directed learning does not make it easier for teaching staff. This requires new skills, more responsiveness to student's needs.

Universities are currently undertaking an intensive advertising campaign for students. In one advertisement, a student gets a text message from their professor, they press a button on the phone and are instantly connected with the Professor. This creates an unrealistic expectation and an inappropriate view of education.

Change is Stressful

Students are demanding a new online approach to education. But this change is stressful for teaching staff who are used to the students having to come to them and get information which is rationed out. Similarly administrative staff are used to having the students come along at set times to fill in set paper forms. If students can learn any time of the day or night, they expect the learning materials to be available then. They also expect the administrative support to also be available online 24 hours a day.

Factors Affecting the Stress of and Resistance to Change

Forced change has normally been thought of as something which the teachers are imposing on the students. But the introduction of web based education and smart phones is changing that dynamic. If what the teaching is providing is not satisfactory, the student can turn their attention elsewhere, online, instantly.

Several years ago I learnt a valuable lesson from a student. I suggested some software to them for a project. I expected they would make a note of this on a piece of paper and come back next week to tell me how it went. Instead they were making notes with a mobile phone. They then opened a laptop, connected to the Internet, downloaded the software and had it running in less than a minute.

Change Management in Practice

The ANU has been undertaking work on helping staff adapt to educational change. This included a Digital Lecture Delivery system, which allows a blending of some of the features of lectures and online environments. Unlike complex systems used by some universities, the ANU system allows the lecturer to press a couple of buttons to record and Podcast a lecture. More complex and real time software has been introduced, but the simple DLD is still a very useful service.

Resistance to change in content delivery

A major unresolved issue for staff with online content delivery is time management. Part of a lecturer's identity is defined by giving lectures. As an ANU Adjunct Lecturer who no longer gives lectures, I am a walking tautology. Many of the administrative processes assume that the primary function of a lecturer is to give lectures, defining their time use and remuneration. As part of the process of introducing blended and online courses the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science has had to work through the complexities of administering this new world. Many university faculties and staff are still in a state of denial over this.

Resistance to change in assessment practices

The paper discusses student resistance to change in assessment. But as with content delivery, I have not noticed any such resistance with having given up setting examinations. The idea that assessment will reflect real world skills being instilled as part of a course seems obvious and natural to students. It is only teachers who think that a paper based test is a measure of anything useful.

In my view much more effort has to be put into helping teachers cope with the changes to educational practice now occurring. The obvious way to do this is through education, using the tools being advocated for introduction. It seems wasteful and wrong-headed to advocate the use of computer based tools and then expect teachers to learn from a few hours of intensive face-to-face chalk-and-talk sessions. What is required are properly designed courses, with formal assessment, using computer based tools. At the same time Australia could take the opportunity to improve the quality of education of its teachers and apply global standards.

All this may sound expensive and difficult: why not just keep on as we have been? Australia has benefited from a boom in overseas enrolment in higher education. That boom is now ending. Internet based education will not only allow students from China and India to go elsewhere for education, but also allow Australia students to study overseas, without leaving home. Australian universities will be required to compete with online universities, headquartered in the USA and UK, but with the bulk of their teaching staff located in low cost virtual campuses in India and China. Australian universities will not be able to compete on cost and so will have to compete on the quality of their online educational experience.

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