The Human Side of Digital Learning

Increasingly I’ve become interested in the transformation to learning online, whether at work, school, or university. As we now predominantly prefer a combination of working from home and in-office, the expectations of our online environment are rapidly growing. During the coronavirus lockdown, we saw lessons and professional courses stumble into operating online. Many teachers and tutors were not familiar with the collaboration and communication tools that many business people were already familiar with. The challenge of the conference call across time zones and language barriers was established in the technology project delivery world, alongside Google docs, Zoom, MS Teams, and instant messenger tools such as Slack. Most project managers in 2020 already understood how intense and time consuming communication, negotiation, and group agreement is in a remote setting. This was not necessarily true of senior leaders across sectors, and was certainly unfamiliar in other the learning profession. So three years on, what is the current experience of the academic and business sector in terms of working practices?

From what I have seen, everyone is familiar with the now standard communication tools and the sharing of core documents whether educational or regarding business process. What is not so clear are which up and coming technology tools will ultimately prevail for truly integrated learning and working? We appear to be at the Betamax video format versus VHS moment, or to be more current Nokia phones versus Samsung versus Apple iPhone. For our younger students, most schools are entirely teaching in person again and have massively improved systems for homework and catching up on missed lessons. To support parents and students for Maths, there is an embedded tuition video with each homework question which we have come to completely rely on in our household. However university students are facing a much changed long-term study style, with most universities choosing a hybrid version of online and on-site tuition.

One speaker recently mentioned that staff are experiencing constant, rapid change in the transition to online learning, and the next step of hybrid learning styles that are emerging. Any company under change management knows about change fatigue, where people simply cannot absorb more change after a three to six month period without a stabilising window where change is slowed. The degree of stress among teaching teams has peaked in this new requirement to return to the in-person world, while also maintaining the online component. High teaching staff attrition is a constant reality due to stress and the lack of feeling in control. It feels like universities would now benefit from the skills of user experience in technology to support them in developing bespoke learning pathways, which adapt and flex according to individual skill, progress, preferred learning styles, personality, subject matter, and so on. The supporting technology is not yet fully fledged, neither has the learning design experience matured across online and in-person worlds. As with all new things there are early adopters and those who are resistant to change, or who have so far been unable to absorb the scale of technological shift and the need to teach differently. As mentioned in my earlier blog there are many attempts to address the challenges in digital learning and user behaviour, with varying levels of success and engagement. I would hope the persona-based style of user interface development and the management of change through Agile and flexible methodologies is being incorporated. Someone somewhere needs to choose what the institutional priorities are across a university and at faculty level, and I get the sense this is not comprehensive from senior leader to tutor at the coalface. Without integrated co-ordination people will burn-out, students will be taught inconsistently, and budgeting will prove close to impossible. The Product Ownership and Technical Expert format of the Agile team for true collaboration seems a perfect style to adopt to moderate the speed of change and the overall direction (see this blog on Agile (Not Just for Tech) for ideas on how to apply this methodology more widely). This method would enable measurable results, allocate resources effectively, and prevent everyone involved from going a little mad and losing the will to do anything! One concept I liked the idea of is Digital Gardens which gathers together all the online learning resources. Their website does not detail how, so it would be good to see openly how they aggregate content across a course, each lecturer or tutor, and each student.

It would seem that the speed of change for tutor and student practices has reached As mentioned in my blog on Rapid Digital Transformation in the University Sector, only 42% of tutor feedback is accessed. This may not be the fault of the student however or the quality of feedback that is to blame, perhaps instead this statistic is a consequence of time, learning behaviour, and available device. For example if a essay is annotated, it may be impossible to read feedback on a mobile device and given the chance that feedback may be read on public transport as the only available window of time. Not accessing feedback therefore may simply be a consequence of user behaviour not being compatible with the format of providing feedback. Perhaps instead feedback could be given in an associated Voicenote, with a transcript download for accessibility purposes. It may also be that the feedback is not targeted enough towards recommendations for future work, it may not be prioritised effectively to ease absorption, or may simply be too overwhelming creating a disincentive for improvement. Maybe instead three summary recommendations could be provided alongside a grade through voice, which should be easier for the tutor to add given the right technology tool as opposed to the need for written feedback. One other psychological factor to consider could be related to the financial outlay for studying. This conversely may mean the student is less able to absorb feedback, given the consequence of potential failure inducing a higher levels of stress.

Some universities meanwhile are experimenting with shorter modules, removing grading and focussing instead on feedback, plus creating course leadership styles that are student-led (described as students as co-producers) rather than tutor-led. Inevitably tutors have been criticised on student-led course development for not being directional enough, however as the Academy for Contemporary Music found this was quickly solved by explaining the teaching practice that had been adopted up front. A lecturer mentioned to me last week that some students now fear the in-person lecture, because they cannot playback the content later; their note taking and listening ability seem to have atrophied in the intervening years of video lectures. I wonder whether this student-led method of immersive learning could encourage a greater sense of community and belonging on the course, which post-lockdown is otherwise being lost due to remote learning.

To assist in a higher level of engagement at in-person and perhaps online lectures, experts from industry, science, and the charity sector, could be invited to share their knowledge. Having spoken to ARM Education in 2018 they talked of establishing this aspect of their business to ensure incoming graduate recruits are sufficiently prepared for their roles. They had previously found that the university tuition was not current enough that the emerging student was immediately ready for the expectations of work; this is particularly as an engineering company at the cutting edge of technology they have higher standards. Increasingly I think individual university brands and reputation could be less relevant than the overall teaching and learning standards incorporated in a degree. With an online teaching world, why couldn’t a student pay their tuition fee generically and slice and dice their course from the lecture provision across multiple universities? This should be entirely possible in the digital world, in a similar way to Activate Learning and Coursera. Why couldn’t some of these university courses even be international, earning students credit towards their degree with every module? Needless to say the sense of ‘belonging’ to a university and the subsequent status of alumni would be eroded, however the sense of a single university community is already decreasing with remote learning. To truly transform the sector and give students both value for money and the highest quality knowledge, as well as the highest quality degree, we need to think much more flexibly. The virtual university experience in five years time may astound the university staff corpus of today!

Ultimately, the academic and university sect responds to government policy and will likely move at the pace led by funding and policy. Please let’s respond to Ken Robinson’s call in this TED Talk from 2006 to design our kids educational future to suit the skills, tools, and attitudes they will face long-term. Can we not arrange education to prepare children for adulthood, in a birth to death style on continuous learning and ultimate career and life success? I really hope so.

Kind regards, Ruth

Header photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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