A case of you don’t know what you don’t know?

One of my current research projects involves assisting lecturers to make small and practical changes to the way they teach and the tools they use to teach, particularly to distance ed students. In a nutshell, the lecturers in the trial units are changing a percentage of their assessment to focus on student-generated, collaborative learning using an easily-managed local WordPressMU installation. None of the lecturers have previously taught using social media or any kind of interactive or collaborative task in their (distance ed) teaching, and none of the students have previously experienced the use of these in their degree.

What is most interesting for me coming out of the student survey data is the perception of what effective and engaging learning is. One of the survey questions asks students to identify tools and aspects of distance learning that they find engaging and effective – and nearly every student has answered lecture notes, lecture podcasts and Powerpoint slides. Now, I’ll admit I initially cringed at this. Education research has been advocating a move away from this kind of push delivery for years now. And personally, as a learner, these three things are the most tedious, boring, disengaging features of distance learning. I realise that my level of self-directedness is probably not the norm in adult learners, but I also did not expect to get a near 100% response rate in favour of old-school, content-push, read-this-then-write-an-essay delivery.

But.

I’m reluctant to tie concepts to a demographic, but nearly all respondents are in the 36-50 age bracket. They’re comfortable with this style of learning. Why fix what ain’t broke? Many also said they hated groupwork, thought social media was a waste of time and so on. I was getting concerned that those who keep telling me that this ‘new kind of teaching’ isn’t relevant to our demographic of external students might have a point. Until I read on.

Except for a couple of (not unexpected) respondents who put it in the ‘too hard’ basket, almost all the students who initially noted they preferred to learn via lecture notes and Powerpoints and who were unconvinced of the value of social media indicated that they were finding the collaborative blog task really valuable and engaging, significantly more so than they had expected. Which leads me to wonder – is it simply a case of we don’t know what we don’t know? I have long thought that adult learners have the same needs as school students when it comes to in-depth, engaging and valuable study, yet feedback from adult students often indicates otherwise. I have also long suspected that educators often confuse engagement with outcomes – what I didn’t realise is that maybe students do this too. So what I’m asking now is – is there a better experience distance students could be having, that they might not be aware of?

Just because it ain’t broke doesn’t mean we can’t do it better.

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