Online and off-kilter?

The student experience is now a connected experience argues Lenovo Worldwide Education Executive, Sam Morris. But is it better?

“Don’t let academics get in the way of your education.” That was the advice given to me, when I was a student. Back then, the university experience was as much about personal development as academic achievement. As such, it came with certain expectations; not all of them involved studying. But things change. ‘Going to university’ now means something different – just as ‘going to work’ means more than the old 9 to 5 routine.

Today’s students have been reimagined as ‘connected learners’, with significant implications for their time in HE – academically and personally.

Up until the last decade, learning experiences were largely solitary and intimate. Students interacted with content, faculty and colleagues in small numbers – in-person. Campus environments and course structures reflected that style of pedagogy. We had lecture theatres for seminars; but professors’ offices housed study groups. Communal spaces were set up for quiet and contemplation. And students primarily worked on projects alone.

Now, the small study groups have become big study networks. And ICT is driving the shift.

Most HE institutions have already put in place the first layer of a blended learning experience. Usually, this will include a Learning Management System (LMS) and online portals to augment face-to-face contact. But, LMS platforms are just supplementary communities to those that connected learners have grown up with and use daily: social networks.

Integrating social tools such as Twitter, Facebook and Skype into the learning experience might seem an uncomfortably big step for HE. But it’s where the greatest transformations will occur – particularly for immediately actionable needs. (Again, the parallels with business.) What’s more: campus environments and course structures will adapt.

In the connected experience, communal areas enable communication and collaboration – on- and offline. Learning is less confined to rigid schedules – in and out of faculty hours. And once scattered services and opportunities are more accessible – even off-campus. If enrolled students miss a class, they might be able to catch it via video at home. They can explore other courses, or reach out to different networks of communities, information and events. With connection comes freedom, and new control – which touches faculty staff too.

Many academics I know want more support – not just with the technology, but also their own learning and development. The doubt I often hear is: ‘How can I remain relevant?’ The Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK) framework helps provide the answer. Greater overlap is required across its key areas, because that’s what will shape the most effective approach in tomorrow’s learning environments.

And so to the leading question about the connected experience: is it a positive shift?

In my day, ‘going to university’ meant severing the ties with my folks – save a call, once or twice a month. And there was significance in the life lessons I learned. The 21st century equivalents are so fundamentally more connected to their families and friends through devices and social communities that some wonder whether their non-academic learning is being stifled. Moot point. But the benefits of the connected experience to academic learning are undeniable.

We can’t stop progress; we can only try to understand and exploit the change to realise its possibilities. That’s the challenge facing HE leaders, as they find ways to (re)create communities of learning, on and off the campus.

Connected or not, the student experience depends entirely on the quality of the learning environment, which ICT can now enhance and extend.

My advice to today’s students? “Don’t let proximity and timetables get in the way of your education.”

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