I have been watching a lot of YouTube videos that students have created about their experience and especially the ‘Day in the Life’ kind of thing. As I’m watching them I got to think how different they are and the range of digital technologies that they had used. This led me to think about the technology that students use and the impact these have on the students learning experience with and the kind of assumptions we have about our students. For example, re-emerging to teaching on campus we have made certain assumptions that the students will be able to access the resources we have provided, which includes induction information, apps for general information about the campus/departmental spaces and travel, the ability to access Moodle etc. Even if you never wanted to give another Zoom session or Teams call again, you would at the very least need students to be able to access emails and associated attachments.
My thinking was how do students access learning? What do we know about what they are using and how do we make it as easy as possible for them to learn and study with minimal disruption?
Assumption #1 Every student has a device
Yes they do. But this does make everything equal. Even if we give them a laptop or a discount to a device they may not have access to a network to be able to use the online things that we have asked them to. Old phones, older tablets, older laptops. Data and minutes are still an issue for students who do not have the funds to have a monthly contract. In addition to that, they may also have more than one device and depending on what they have (new or old) will impact on their ability to make use of them and do what they need to be able to do for their course.
Assumption #2 Every student knows how to use devices
Nope. I would imagine that lots can work it out as long as the tool/software/etc is intuitive and works like the other things that they have used but they absolutely don’t have some cyborg gene which lets them know more than anyone over the age of about 40. I also would like to have thought that this explanation would no longer be necessary but I still see ’digital natives’ being bandied about and hear reference to it which causes issues of confidence (in both staff and students) and I wish it would just go away. It is actually not fair to students and it is not fair to staff because it means that both don’t want to ask for help for fear of being seen to be deficient in some way.
Assumption #3 Battery life and the need for plugs
Many years ago, plug sockets were the thing that any new campus building or refurb needed to show students that they recognised that they would be using their own device for their learning. Then we added USB ports into the said sockets and we thought that we had it covered. Battery life has improved on lots of devices now but there are a lot of students (presumably) that do not have the latest piece of kit nor can afford popular brands like Apple/Surface etc. So the need for plugs and probably charging stations will continue on campus and for those students who do not live on or near campus and travel every day, that journey will need some kind of battery charge through an access point personal to them. And there just aren’t enough in the convenient locations (like lecture halls, seminar rooms, library spaces and eating locations). If students can’t find somewhere to sit down when they eat, they are not going to be able to find a place to charge their device and they also need to find somewhere to study with the same access. For the thousands of students who attend any given institution, what is the ratio of plugs/sockets to devices?
Assumption #4 Every student has a camera on their device
That is true to some extent. Lots of devices come with cameras but not every device has a good quality camera. If we take into account the assumptions above they all have an impact on the learning experience. Camera quality, adjustments of the angle, bandwidth available, battery life, all have an impact which can cause anxiety, embarrassment, and interfere with the actual point of the exercise which was presumably to learn something.
ASSUMPTION #5 EVERY STUDENT HAS WIFI ACCESS
I was unsure how to phrase this but I mean that the students don’t all have a monthly mobile phone contract or funds to top up when they feel like it. Not having enough data is a problem if students are not always on campus and rely on their data plan for when they can’t get to free Wifi. If they do use free wifi there is an added risk that they are using unsecured networks which means their data is at risk (unless they use VPN). Even if they do this, free networks are not usually very fast and can be frustrating for learning etc.
What to do?
The answer is not to turning off the internet. I also don’t think the answer is giving everyone the latest device. It is complicated and a range of factors influence the digital learning experience for students: access to resources, confidence in using technology, location, experience will all have an impact. I think it is about being mindful of the types of students that are on the course, the levels of digital access and how to promote and support institutional initiatives to improve digital access. Essential, know your students and normalise the options that allow, in some part, for levelling the playing field in terms of resources, skills and opportunity.
I am interested in exploring the impact of digital access (in its widest sense) for commuter students in higher education across the UK for my PhD research with Lancaster University. Please get in touch with me if you would like to find out more.