Today, there are few institutions left untouched by the digital revolution and many higher education establishments are making large investments in sophisticated learning technology. According to a report published last year, the global education technology sector was worth £45 billion in 2015 and is set to reach £129 billion by 2020. The edtech sector is now on a par with fintech (or financial technology) as one of the fastest growing areas of the UK digital economy.
But there is one hallowed area where very little changes – the lecture hall. In many universities and colleges – the template remains the same; the lecturer stands in front, imparts their knowledge and students try to capture as much as they can. “The definition of a lecture has become the process in which the notes of the teacher go to the notes of the student without going through the brains of either,” says one US commentator*.
Yet even this traditional model is under threat – not from any expensive organisation-wide software, but from the students themselves. First this is happening through the use of smartphones during lectures, mainly for texting and internet surfing. This then has a negative impact on student engagement.
Engagement is becoming a huge buzz word in education and for good reason. In the Kirkpatrick Model, the worldwide standard for evaluating the effectiveness of training in the commercial world, the reaction of participants and the degree to which they are actively involved in and contributing to the learning experience – in other words, their engagement - is the first level of evaluation of successful teaching.
Most students are digital natives which means that they are unlikely to be engaged by the conventional and hierarchical lecture structure. They like to collaborate, they like immersion and interaction and have become used to fast results and answers.
Students learn, engage and absorb news throughout their daily lives on mobile devices, so to survive, lecturers must build on this dependence
Students learn, engage and absorb news throughout their daily lives on mobile devices, so to survive, lecturers must build on this dependence. The best way to engage with students is use the methods they themselves use to process information in their everyday lives.
Over years some universities have attempted to enhance student engagement during lectures with clickers or student response systems. These have introduced the idea of polling students to test their understanding of a topic and detect gaps in knowledge. However, these clickers often became a burden to manage.
Now a number of universities are experimenting with a student response system which is accessed by downloading an app onto a phone or via a web link and entering a code. Students can use their own phones or tablets and there’s no extra devices to manage and maintain.
There’s now a virtual two-way link between student and the lecturer. Polls to test knowledge levels and understanding are invaluable to lecturer’s success in assessing learning and access to set these up via a PowerPoint Add-in allows for quick and simple set up before or even during class. Smartphone devices also enable students to direct questions to the lecturer, anonymously if they prefer. This fits neatly into another shift in the learning model; the move towards setting students computer-based learning tasks to complete in their own time and then using the lecture for thinking, discussing and challenging ideas rather than just taking in information.
Despite the expense and complexity of organisation-wide IT systems, it is often the simple and elegant solutions that become the most widely adopted. To survive in today’s lectures, it’s essential to roll with the tide and put the smartphone to constructive use.