Saturday, November 23, 2013

Improving the Student Experience at University

In accepting an invitation to speak on MOOCs at the Inaugural Student Experience Conference (Sydney, 4 December 2013), I first had to work out what the "Student Experience" is. The conference announcement defines the "Student Experience" as: "Involves technology, student services and methods of course delivery.". It is suggested a good student experience can be a competitive advantage for an institution to attract students.

Enroll To Understand the Student Experience

I suggest the best way for academics and administrators to truly understand the student experience is to be a student. It is likely many years, or decades, since those making decisions at university were students themselves. Much has changed in the interim and time will have softened the memory of the student experience. It is necessary to do more than just sit in on a class, the enrollment and assessment processes are important to the student experience.

The Australian Education International (AEI) report "Enhancing the International Student Experience" provides the results of seven demonstration projects, focusing on four areas:
  1. Social engagement - effective strategies for improving the level and quality of interaction between domestic and international students both on and off campus;
  2. Career readiness – models for ensuring that the employability skills of international students are developed and improved on an ongoing basis through continuous learning and integration into the total study experience;
  3. Student support services – exploring how international students access information that affects health and lifestyle, and the relationship between self-perceived identity and social networks; and
  4. Orientation programs – innovative ways to use new technologies (such as social media) to more effectively disseminate information on the nature and availability of support services for international students.
From: Enhancing the International Student Experience, Australian Education International, 2012
While aimed at international students, I suggest these areas are also of issue for domestic students, particularly those from a different background to the traditional university student. It is not acceptable to assume that the typical student is domestic, on-campus, full time, without a disability, without family or community obligations and is a Christian.

Two Years and Three Higher Education Institutions

In 2011 the ANU strategic plan set the goal, that all new teaching staff will have completed an introductory teaching course by 2015 (ANU by 2020, Ian Young, Vice-Chancellor, ANU, August 2011). While I was not new to the ANU (or teaching), as an Adjunct I thought it prudent to take up the offer of a free course in teaching.

After completing the ANU's introductory teaching course I decided to go on and complete a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education. The courses were delivered in workshop mode, on campus, supplemented by use of the Moodle Learning Management System. However, as I was interested in e-learning I substituted two on-line courses at another Australian university, more than a thousand kilometers away. These courses were also delivered via Moodle. Then I was offered the opportunity to teach a vocational course run by a Registered Training Organization (RTO), which required a certificate IV in Training and Assessment. So I enrolled at a TAFE, which also used Moodle.

Being enrolled at three Australian higher education institutions in the same subject area, at the same time, using the same learning management system, allowed me to compare the student experience. At the same time I was teaching in a classroom and on-line for one university. Also I was part of a virtual faculty, offering professional education on-line directly and through a multi-university consortium.

Registering at On-line Is Easier Than On Campus

My first surprise as a multi-institution student was that it was easier to enroll at an institution set up for distance education than enroll locally on campus. A web based system which allowed me to enter questions about enrollment and receive answers by email was very useful. An integrated telephone help desk integrated with the web queries made this far superior to going into an office to ask a question over the counter. The telephone call center had my details on the screen, including past questions asked and so did not need to ask me to repeat my circumstances. Also the use of a web based form which could be saved when partly complete was very useful. This was far superior to filling in a PDF form, or a paper form.

On-line Student Support is Superior to On-campus

The Moodle systems of the institutions looked remarkably different. The systems had been customized and integrated into other university systems. In general I found the less customized the Moodle was, the better. Customizations tended to clutter the interface and slow it down, rather than helping.

As a student, most of the time my interaction with the institution was within a course and so within Moodle. What I typically wanted to know, was "What do I need to do next?", "When is the next assessment due?". Course materials which were not laid out in this task orientated way were frustrating to use.

Links to other university systems were integrated, to a greater or lesser extent. Some institutions did not use Moodle's assignment submission or grading system, which made submitting assignments and getting marks more difficult. Most did not use Moodle for individual student-to-teacher communication, instead relying on email, which resulted in important messages being lost amongst other mail.

Links to reading materials proved difficult. I found that many links to university library holdings of e-books and copies of articles, did not work. In many cases the links which did work had electronic documents which were unreadable, being poor scanned copies of paper originals or being burdened by copy protection schemes. I developed a routine of no using the offered electronic readings and instead searching for them on the web, or obtaining the documents on paper from local Canberra university libraries.

Asynchronous E-learning Very Effective With Well Prepared Materials

The routine of studying some prepared material on-line, reading some extra readings, doing an exercise and then discussing it in an on-line forum, worked well. However, this only worked when the material was carefully prepared and checked. Where the material was missing, or incorrect, the lack of intimidate access to the teacher caused confusion. I spent a considerable amount of time reading the wrong material and doing the wrong exercises as a result.

Face-to-face exercises were not without their problems, with unclear preparation instructions and a lack of follow-up. Well designed on-line activities tended to make me less tolerant of classroom problems. As a part-time student I found the requirement to attend face-to-face activities a problem, particularly where missing any one activity could result in my not passing the course.

Synchronous E-learning Did Not Work Most of the Time

While the asynchronous on-line forums worked well, I was mostly unable to get synchronous sessions to work. Where I was able to access synchronous forums, the participants spent so much time dealing with bandwidth and microphone problems that the conversation was very stilted. In this respect, face-to-face classroom sessions were superior. However, I suggest synchronous activities, on-line or in the classroom, should only be used as an optional supplement to asynchronous learning, or where they are essential to learning. Teachers and educational institutions need to understand the very large burden which compulsory attendance imposes on students.

Lack of Integration of Courses Caused Problems But Not Between Institutions

Both face-to-face and on-line courses suffered from the self-contained nature of course based programs. Even where courses were meant to be designed as part of a program, there was considerable overlap. Also the design of courses could be out of sync, with one course having been updated, but the companion course not, resulting in inconsistencies. One surprise was how well courses from different institutions and different systems of education (university and vocational) fitted together. I found no difficulty with moving from institution to institution in the same discipline, even between university and TAFE.

Too Many Surveys

Institutions are interested in the experience their students are having, but may be diminishing the quality of that experience through excessive surveys. Each institution I was enrolled in administered one survey per course and one per program. This seems reasonable, but then there were additional surveys for external independent bodies and ones for internal marketing purposes. This became annoying.

As a student it was difficult to distinguish what was an official survey and what was just a marketing exercise I could ignore. Also as a student I was reluctant to complete a survey about a course until it had ended. The result was that I would receive reminders to complete surveys and not know what they were for. In some cases reminders arrived weeks after I had completed surveys. This became so annoying that I decided to give the institution a progressively lower rating each time I was given another a survey to fill in. Institutions need to consider reducing the number of surveys.

Teachers Still Matter Most

While the administrative and on-line systems had an effect on my student experience, what was most important were the teachers. Regardless of if it was in a classroom, or on-line, what made for a good experience was a teacher who was competent in the subject, a competent teacher, were accessible and appeared to care about the students. All my teachers appeared competent in the subject matter, but what distinguished the good from bad was their teaching ability and particular their ability to communicate through technology.

What caused most frustration was teachers not making effective use of the available technology for communication. Forum postings and emails from teachers were often full of errors, cryptic abbreviation and incorrect links to non existent documents. At times I would receive unreadable handwritten materials, when the Learning Management System could have been used to deliver a readable typed document. Rather than use the communications built into the system, email was used, which would get lost.

Like most students, assessment is very important to me. It was therefore disappointing when not enough care seemed to have been put into assessment items, which contained out of date instructions. Also there was a tendency for marking to take weeks and be returned with excessive detailed feedback (which by then was useless). This was curious given that part of the content of the material being assessed was about the importance of rapid and concise feedback.

Structure and Flexibility Needed

Studying teaching at a leading research university, a teaching university and TAFE showed more common aspects than differences. As a student I found I appreciated the scaffolding which detailed course notes provided, especially when delivered via the learning management system. This was adaptable to the more narrow focus of a vocational institution or a research university. While an experienced computer professional and educator, I still needed step by step help with what it was I was learning.

Suggestions for Improving the Student Experience

The four areas identified in the AEI report "Enhancing the International Student Experience" are useful places to concentrate on for all students, domestic and international, on and off-campus:
  1. Social engagement: Programs to encourage interaction between students outside their courses should, like the courses themselves, be flipped and blended. As a part time mostly off-campus, student, I found it frustrating to receive invitations to events I could not attend. It was especially annoying to know that the compulsory multiple Student Services and Amenities Fees I was paying to the institutions were funding events I could not attend. While there were some attempts to provide on-line forums, these were not integrated into the mainstream events, as they should be.
  2. Career readiness: Higher education is for more than just a vocation, but employability is important. Course designers could do more to provide realistic assessment tasks. For me, two assessment tasks which stood out as being closely skills aligned were:
  3. Student support services: The support services should be "flipped", that is provided on-line and then face-to-face services offered to supplement this. There should be levels of support built into each course, program and university wide. Students do not necessarily know where to turn for help and the university should have one integrated system which can be used to pass their request to the correct area, without the student having to explain the problem each time. On-line system could also be used to monitor student's progress to see none are lost in the system, between course, program and institution responsibilities. It should not be acceptable to wait until the end of semester and discover a student has failed their courses before seeing if they need help. The on-line system should be able to detect a student who needs help, within a few hours, or days of a problem occurring.
  4. Orientation programs: Caution should be used in the use of external social media services for student support. While the ‘Teach by Twitter" strategy has been shown to be educationally effective (Enhancing Undergraduate Teaching and Feedback using Social Media – an Engineering Case Study, Ben Evans, 2013), it exposes the students and staff to risk. Information should first and primarily be provided via the university's systems, so the student can be assured of privacy and that they are really communicating with the institution. As a student I felt very vulnerable if I needed to use a non-university system for communication. Where the university used systems which were hosted in other countries, I had to keep in mind that anything I said in that forum was subject to the laws of that country and was potentially discoverable by the law enforcement agencies of that country.

ps: My journey in higher education has not ended, as I have now applied to undertake a Masters of Education in Distance Education, via distance education.

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