Reflections on parallel sessions: The state of elearning in FE/HE (Durham Blackboard Users Conference 2011)

By Matt Cornock

This post is a selective summary and thoughts raised by one of the parallel sessions at the 2011 Durham Blackboard Users Conference. This session presented a review of findings from an institution-wide survey on the use of elearning technologies.

Session: ‘Has education changed in the digital age’ by Ralph Holland, South Tyneside College.

This session presented results from an institution-wide survey on staff usage and perceptions of ‘collaborative tools’ which included, for example, blogs, wikis and the VLE. The response rate was 15% of all staff.

Some noteworthy points:

  • 100% used collaborative tools as a way of providing more information to students.
  • 30% used collaborative tools as a way to facilitate out-of-class discussion.
  • Staff say they ‘frequently use’ virtual learning – however our perceptions of ‘virtual learning’ as LTs will greatly differ from the average teaching staff.
  • We need to challenge assumptions about student IT literacy (in FE), particularly as most students self-taught as curriculum-based IT is often slow to catch up and limiting in scope.
  • Students believe that academic staff should know what the following mean and how to use them: IM (instant messaging, eg Live Messenger, Facebook Chat), MP3 (music/audio file format), Podcasting (syndicated audio, downloadable regularly produced audio), RSS (Really Simple Syndication, for news feeds, blogs, journal updates and podcasts), and Email (primary communication medium).
  • FE is still greatly limited by resources through physical space and financial restraint. It is not possible for every class to be located in an IT suite, and so teaching methods and learning practices are bound by the desk-based classroom.
  • We need to consider what IT skills 5 year-olds today will have in a decade’s time, as the pace of change in students’ IT abilities is greatly above that of educational policy-maker and institutions’ abilities to change.
  • Institution-wide strategies need to be supported top-down, however I would add here that supported does not mean forced/directed. Commitment and action will begin bottom-up, but those at the top should be willing to support initiatives.

Though the focus of this survey was on the usage of a particular tool, I am interested in the how and why something is used in a particular way and cautious of conclusions drawn that high frequency of use relates to importance. Future surveys which don’t focus on frequency of use but reasons for use could open up interesting debates into the motivations, challenges and intended learning objectives associated with using collaborative technologies. On a similar note, I have always been cautious of surveys which refer to tools instead of activities/processes as there is an assumption that the survey participant uses the same terminology as the elearning specialist. Are we more interested in the tool or the intended output of using it?

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