Friday, May 6, 2022

What Students Want

In "Beyond Zoom, Teams and video lectures Gedera, Datt, Brown, Forbes, and Hartnett (2011), ask what university students want from online learning. But I suggest this says more about the authors, than the students. To students, online is just a normal part of learning. You might as well ask them what they want from smart phones, to which today's student is likely to ask: "What other sort of phone is there?".

The COVID-91 pandemic did not turn learning "upside down", as the authors claim. Most students were mostly studying online already. It was just a shock for teachers, to be forced to face this reality. 

Since 2020, there has been a lot published on online learning, but revealing little which was not already known, from decades of prior research. For the authors to suggest the student voice was not heard is valid, but no more so that for other forms of learning. As a student of education myself, I learned early on to be careful in expressing any criticism of my instructors, lest I be punished. This was a painful lesson to learn, having being invited to comment on a program, and then being banished from it for a year, for doing so.

The authors surveyed 1,000 university students at eight New Zealand universities (NZ only has eight). That these  students, particularly online ones,  face "... financial hardship, family responsibilities and challenging study environments ...", should not be a revelation. Distance education, which online learning is derived from, was created specifically for students who faced barriers to conventional face to face learning.

As well as challenges, however, there also benefits online. More than half the students acknowledged not having to travel and having the flexibility to learn at their own pace and place was beneficial. But the benefits of online learning should look familiar, as they are mostly those of distance education over the decades: the removal of time and distance barriers.

The authors have conducted a useful study, but it would have been more useful if they had acknowledged that COVID-19 was not the start of online learning, and that online learning was not the start of distance education.

As for what students want, I was an online international student of education from 2013 to 2016. I wanted to complete as quickly and cheaply as possible. I wanted support from my instructors, and interaction with fellow students. What I found was the crushing loneliness of online study, and the frustration of poorly designed course materials. However, I found the online experience much better than any face to face Australian university experience: lower cost, less frustrating, better designed course materials, relevant assessment, and a successful outcome.

After seven years learning online without exams, this format came to be for me just normal education.  I would now not not contemplate enrolling in, or teaching,  a program requiring attendance, or exams. That would be like using coal powered car for daily transport: something which had been done in the distant past, but now so obsolete it is not worth considering.

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