Saturday, May 26, 2012

If students are digital natives why don't they like our e-learning?

50 by bandita, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  bandita

A new report has been published by Toronto-based Higher Education Strategy Associates with the superb title The State of E-Learning in Canadian Universities, 2011: If Students Are Digital Natives, Why Don’t They Like E-Learning? It's a study of Canadian students' attitudes to e-learning and finds, not surprisingly that today's students are not so enthusiastic towards universities' net-based courses as we would expect. Despite growing up with the net and labelled as "digital natives" by generalising parents, they are not automatically attracted to the e-learning on offer.

It's easy to draw the conclusion that traditional classroom education is, after all, best since the students in the survey seem to prefer it to net-based studies. The best online resources in their opinion are recorded lectures and they prefer printed books to e-books on the whole. Traditionalists will heave a sigh of relief and say "I told you so" and we can all get back behind the lectern and keep lecturing.

However the report ends with some very relevant thoughts. Maybe students' lukewarm attitude to e-learning is because the e-learning on offer is simply not very compelling or well designed? What if the e-learning of today is simply a pale electronic version of traditional teaching and therefore is always compared to the "real thing." Maybe we haven't actually changed anything, we've just put the classroom on the net without much thought of why we might want to do that.

"Another way to read the data is simply that the e-learning resources being deployed in Canadian universities aren’t of high enough quality to really engage a very digitally-savvy student population. Perhaps with more investment not just in the user interface but in the integration of in-person and online learning, e-learning resources can move from being a technology that helps students find alternatives to being in class to a technology that actually enhances and is additive to their inclass experience."

I think there is also a comfort factor behind the students' attitudes. They have been raised on classroom teaching and are used to lectures and studying to pass exams. The real potential of using the net in education demands different skills and a new approach to teaching and learning that is more challenging. The e-learning that this report examines represents a traditional linear model based largely on information transfer and self study.

As long as e-learning is simply an electronic version of a face-to-face activity it will remain a pale copy, a next-best-thing instead of something new and exciting. It's the same with many other digital phenomena. If we define digital online publishing as simply e-books, electronic versions of "real" books, we're missing the point. When the electronic version transcends the original and becomes something else then we will be able to see the benefits.

Work in progress.


  1. A thoughtful post, Alastair! As an educator working in the virtual arena, I see first-hand the results of traditionalist thinking driving a course or program. Let the dryness begin! Students have a tough time.

    It's helpful if educators, particularly those in higher ed, learn how to convey an accessible, warm, and enthusiastic online persona. Soon, though, the two factions will merge as those of the NextGen move into these fields! @MindyKellerKyri

  2. Yes indeed. Using technology to simply replicate traditional structures does not lead to better learning, as test results confirm. Let's do new things and see what happens.

  3. Good post. The need for elearning not to simply repeat analogue teaching practices hopefully gets heard by the powers that be. We've done very little to develop digital pedagogy as a distinct idea.

    I'd also submit that the natives are immersed in digital games and socializing all the time. When their teacher attempts to use technology that they only use as entertainment for learning it creates real cultural friction.

    I did a blended learning (elearning/regular classroom) pilot last year. I too was curious about why the digital natives didn't want to make use of the digital tools available to us. I quickly learned that many of these 'natives' are one trick ponies, they weren't digitally literate, they were Facebook literate (and some weren't even that).

    Here is a link to that data:

    Great blog, I'm adding you to my reading list.

  4. Hi

    This is very interesting. The two forms of e-learning that you describe as "traditional", I call monological and dialogical on my website. The form you wish for institutions to use more, I call polyphonic. You might be able to find further inspiration on my website, on the different forms of teaching/e-learning.

    - Niels Jakob

  5. A thought provoking post which raises some questions, not just about our teaching and learning with 'digital learners' - I would suggest also that part of the challenge for all institutions lies in the way that we assess our learners. If high schools and tertiary institutions are rapidly spearheading some innovative and exciting developments with technologies in our learning environments, the assessments we are using to measure progress and success are not developing apace. Perhaps that partly accounts for the tension between the 'traditional' and the 'digital' approach and how are young people perceive both. When the pressure is on to 'get results' and the assessment consists of three hours of regurgitation using pen and paper, then the capacity of e-learning to take our young people anywhere quickly diverts them into a cul de sac.