A post from the archive: Native or immigrant – Exploring foreign territory in online learning

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Native or immigrant – Exploring foreign territory in online learning

Posted by: Meredith Seaman, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

There is sometimes a perception that ALL tertiary students have grown up with technology and are natives of the online environment, and that teaching staff, well, they just have to catch up.

I beg to differ…

Working with staff as they prepare for teaching, I come across a vast range of different styles and views in relation to using newer educational technologies, some keen, proficient and eager to experiment and others overwhelmed, nervous or disinterested.

A recent study found that there was significant diversity in both staff and students in terms of technical experiences and proficiency in Australia universities. Students were not always ‘digital natives’ and academics were not always ‘immigrants’ as has sometimes been claimed. Given my experience, it doesn’t surprise me that they found great diversity across ages and groups, and a wide range of perceptions about the advantages of using technology for learning and teaching. Even if we don’t buy into the immigrant/native analogy, both students and staff can at times feel foreign and lost. As reflective journals, lecture capture, web conferencing, twitter, blogs and video (some explored in recent blog posts to TTTT) become more common, more students and colleagues will be exposed to an increasing range of technologies in learning and teaching. So how can we support better learning and teaching through technology and enable both colleagues and students from a range of backgrounds and technical proficiencies to flourish?

My personal understanding of what it might be like to be in ‘foreign territory’ in an educational online context, comes from my own recent experience as a distance education student. Thrown in the deep end with two other students, who had had very minimal exposure to Web 2.0 technologies but were keen to learn, we were asked to use an emerging educational technology to develop and present an assignment about education and technology. A fellow team member suggested a wiki and we were off. In our case, the technical aspects (setting up and navigating wikispaces which was very new to the other students), and visual and instructional design aspects of the task completely took over from the content and intended learning outcomes of the assignment in our interaction as a group. On top of additional time constraints which we faced as mature aged students with young families and/or in full time employment, the challenges of working and being assessed as a group, the assignment almost derailed. We ended up using email to communicate outside of the wiki and got back on track. The difficulties weren’t because wikispaces was difficult to use, but because of the challenges in sustaining good group work and communication while interacting online in an unstructured, unfamiliar space, in this case with others we hadn’t even met.

I learnt a lot from this activity, and apply it in my work with teaching staff. Like Clare suggests in her recent post, there needs to be a clear sense of purpose as to why to adopt technology for a particular tasks, and clear attention paid to the motivation for students (to foster the kind of willingness and ‘good attitude’ which is so important to successful learning). For our assignment the benefit that we should learn about wikis for education to inform our role as educators was clear, yet it still felt like an unnecessarily add on to an assessment task, and very time consuming in itself. While technology can support communication between peers for distance students, the dry unfamiliar territory of the wiki was not ideal for this in our case. We tended to develop content separately, and then publish, rather than truly collaborate and develop ideas relevant to the assignment as a group. The superficial design and technical aspects unfortunately took over. Other tools, like chat or skype or google docs (or even email which we ended up resorting to) would perhaps have been better for timely communication and collaboration, and would have supported the development of the wiki. But the solution to such challenges isn’t using other tools or technology training (though time and support to learn new technologies is terribly important), but in good teaching practice and design.

So what did I learn about good teaching practice and design using educational technologies from that experience?

That we should:

  • provide time for students to play and explore technologies in advance of the ‘meat’ of the assignment work
  • provide clear structure/scaffolding to support how we were expected to work with the online tools (and most importantly AS A GROUP if that’s a key aspect of the task)
  • make an explicit link between the learning outcomes, assessment criteria, and the process of developing new technical skills

and, the benefits of being:

  • required to work in a group with different levels of ability, and with different individual strengths and weaknesses
  • encouraged to explore new technologies
  • able to experience the technology from a student perspective as an educator.

__________________________

More on recent research into ‘immigrants and natives’ and attitudes about technology in learning and teaching:

Educating the Net Generation: Implications for Learning and Teaching in Australian Universities
Open University research explodes myth of ‘digital native’
The impact of web-based lecture technologies on current and future practices in learning and teaching
Teaching, technology and educational design: the architecture of productive learning environments

 

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