Motivation through collaboration by reducing technical barriers – Revisiting Case Studies in Motivating the Learner (Part 5a)

By Matt Cornock

Continuing my look at some of the learning and teaching themes posed over a decade ago in ‘Inspiring Students: Case Studies in Motivating the Learner’, in this post I pick one aspect of a case study presented by John R Savery (1999). My overall point is that educators must be sensitive to the range of digital skills, even now, and their impact on student engagement and learning online.

One of the initial phases of a learning design that utilises learning technologies involves ensuring students have the technical skills necessary to complete the learning and tasks. Particularly with online activities, it’s essential that students don’t encounter barriers to engagement with technology. Such barriers may be caused by:

  • Poor choice of tool – overly complex; inappropriate for the activity.
  • Poor user experience – requires lots of clicks; signing-up to a third-party service.
  • Bad layout – no sign-posting; unintuitive interactions.
  • Maintaining digital identity – requiring personal profiles; mixing private/social spaces.

Within Savery’s case study students were required to have a certain level of technical skill in order to use new software applicable to the task (and the sort of software they would use in the workplace). However, students were allowed to “sign a waiver and skip the training sessions” (p.35). This, I can imagine, has some motivational advantages:

  • Capable students aren’t forced to sit through training and become disengaged from the start of the module.
  • Frees up the trainer to spend time with students who wish to learn new skills or require additional support.

There are risks to this approach. Students don’t necessarily know what they don’t know. Therefore to exempt themselves from training because they believe they already hold the digital capabilities required places a lot of responsibility on the learner. In particular, when the student realises themselves that they don’t perhaps know the ins and outs of software, they need to be in a position to self-train and up-skill without support. This may be a great motivational factor, in that students confidence in their own abilities, particularly when things work out well, could boost their engagement. YouTube is often used for self-training in new skills, whether that’s how to run a particular type of statistical analysis in SPSS or how to tie a Full Windsor knot. However, as outlined above, there are many ways that technology can get in the way of learning. If students are encouraged to self-select for training, then the educator must still have responsibility for providing a safety net. This can be done in a number of ways:

  • Video tutorial / capture of the training session.
  • Provision of guides/manuals from the training session.
  • A summary of the key points from training, in particular any aspects of the software or tool used that may be new or specific to the learning activities.
  • A drop-in or online chat scheduled a few weeks into the term to address any queries.

In the framework of problem-based learning, students can of course draw upon each other. Savery actually referred to this in the case study, where students are deliberately formed into groups by the tutor based upon an analysis of their current skills and knowledge. This shakes up the same old groupings, but also encourages the students to learn from each other. As explained by Savery more generally about the course content, not just for technical skills, “both instructors believed that it was very important that students develop teacher independence and self-directed learning skills… to use their teammates as the primary source of information and assistance” (p.39). For some students, Savery highlighted, that the desire to check with the tutor whether they were doing the right thing made it difficult to defer to teammates or be confident in their own assessment of their work. The shift of responsibility is likely to be uncomfortable, however authentic it is to the workplace environment beyond the degree programme.

I would encourage that where technical skill is necessary, do not assume that all your students know their capabilities and short-comings. Provide alternatives, develop responsibility for training, but ensure that should a student misjudge their own abilities there is opportunity to skill-up, either through tutor-led or peer-led support. Within Salmon’s (2000) well-known five-stage model of online learning, technical capability is represented at stage one: ‘access and motivation’. Whilst recognising that knowing how to use online tools from a functional perspective is key to participation, Salmon (2002) also notes “what really matters is acquiring the emotional and social capacity to learn with others online” (p.12). The approach discussed by Savery seems to bridge these two aspects, using mixed ability groups to design-in a way for confident students to support those less familiar with the technology. Induction for online learning must always address therefore the technical requirements, set the expectations for the mode of learning, and support both.

However, differing from Salmon’s (2000) model, that initial phase of ‘access and motivation’ doesn’t just stop after induction and students’ first engagement online. Particularly with learning designs that are problem-based and authentic, the learner must be adaptable to new technical barriers and ways of learning. The development of this capability to adapt must be supported and is, by the nature of a chosen learning design, surely a resultant key learning objective also. It seems more than appropriate (if not a little late) that within the sector there is increased emphasis on developing students (and staff) digital capabilities (JISC, 2015). Whilst this interest in digital capability looks more broadly than undertaking learning activities, the two are naturally intertwined with more innovative blended and online pedagogies.


JISC (2015). ‘Building digital capability: the six elements defined’, Building Digital Capability Project, JISC.

Salmon, G. (2000). E-Moderating. London: Kogan Page.

Salmon, G. (2002). E-tivities. Abingdon: RoutledgeFalmer.

Savery, J. R. (1999). ‘Enhancing Motivation and Learning Through Collaboration and the Use of Problems’, in Fallows, S. and Ahmet, K. (eds.). Inspiring Students: Case Studies in Motivating the Learner. London: Kogan Page. pp. 33-41.

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