Incoming! Student expectations of technology

Chris has recently been discussing the expectation of new students about the use of technology in learning. Do further and higher education institutions address the fact that many schools offer quite a sophisticated digital experience which is not always easy to match in post-compulsory education? Chris reflects on his own kids’ experiences and what they might have to teach us about developing a positive digital student experience.

young student using a macbook and iphone
Image: CC0

In which I spin out an anecdote about my kids to make a bigger point about institutional uses of technology.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been talking to people about new students’ expectations about the use of technology. They were mostly along the lines of how do further and higher education institutions address the fact that many schools offer quite a sophisticated digital experience which is not always easy to match in post-compulsory education.

We successfully avoided the “digital natives” trap in these exchanges, but it did make me reflect on my own children’s experiences of technology. My daughters is in year 7 and my son is in year 5 in a well-resourced local state school. As you’d expect their home environment has above the average amount of tech in it so let me acknowledge that this is the experience of middle class, European privilege, not a universal experience.

Truth be told, the way technology is used at their school is restricted to certain pockets of practice, usually subject-related such as in Design Technology or ICT. The Maths teachers use My Maths for some homework activities which both of them enjoy (I’m slightly jealous ‘cos that looks fun) but there’s no VLE or eportfolio, no digital badges or “digital by default” approaches.

The really interesting stuff they get up to happens elsewhere. 3 examples:

My daughter had some paired homework to do with a friend who lives half a mile away. I’d been mentally preparing myself for contacting parents to arrange time for them to do it. In the meantime homework was done. The two of them had managed the whole thing via Facetime without any prompting. It was just the easiest, most logical way of achieving what they had to do.

A few weeks back, my son had to draw a poster of the solar system. For a while I thought he was talking to himself until I realised he was using my work iPad to ask Siri for the information he needed. It wasn’t the fact that he was getting the information from the web for this, just his choice of interface. I’ve been a bit sniffy about voice interaction and virtual assistants in the past but here he was using this as his first port of call (and then using Google to fill in the blanks that Siri couldn’t quite manage).

The last example was from yesterday evening where my son was showing my wife and I a channel he’d discovered on YouTube called Map Men. Seriously, have a look – it’s hilarious and for a geographer like me it was a real “that’s m’boy” moment. I have the occasional feeling of guilt about how much screen time we allow our two to have but seeing him using YT to augment the things he’s learning in school is pretty cool. He’s also using it to teach himself electronics, making automated machines and traffic lights in Scrap Mechanic.

So what?

I offer these examples not to brag about my kids…OK maybe I am a bit…more as an example of how technology figures in the lives of the two young people I know best, the sort of people who are likely to end up continuing education beyond school and into the types of organisation I now support.

I think a lot of this could be considered post-digital behaviour. I don’t believe either of my kids were thinking “I know, I’ll use technology to fix this problem”. These were just the tools that they had to hand to fix a problem and I’m not sure they could really grasp why their Dad was talking about it so much afterwards!

Also, none of these examples had anything to do with institutional uses of technology. It didn’t involved a VLE and it wasn’t “ICT” homework. Nobody had to sit down with them and “train” them and it also wasn’t anything that I suggested they do. This is practice they have developed for themselves and these approaches are likely to characterise their use of technology in learning.

Linking to CoDesign 2017

JIsc is shortly going to announce the areas of research and development the education community would most like to see us pursue over the next few years, called CoDesign Challenges. One of the possible areas relates to the next generation of learning environments. There are questions in this area about how students’ use of technology can be best accommodated in the future.

It’s not that I think there’s no place for big organisational things like VLEs, but we’ll need to give serious consideration to how well these systems can accommodate the more flexible and varied practices and technologies learners bring with them. There’s a challenge for people responsible for infrastructure, system design as well as the capabilities of teaching staff.

The cost of not taking it seriously is student experience that doesn’t reflect a crucial aspect of western society and fails to capitalise on its benefits at the same time as helping to addressing it’s problems.

Just don’t mention digital natives!


By Chris Thomson

I'm a Subject Specialist at Jisc focusing on online learning and digital student experience.

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