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Digitising Higher Education 

Digitising Higher Education 

Lessons shared by an institution that has been doing it for a while. 

1. Introduction 

The role of learning and teaching in a digital environment has been catapulted into the spotlight as  many educational institutions which have not paid much attention to it, are now grappling with where to start to put systems in place or brush up on their neglected or under-utilised learning management systems. The now clichéd expression ‘the new normal’ holds true for higher education as well. Digital education as part of a blended learning mode of delivery, is here to stay, has been waiting in the wings and is now coming into its own. Higher education can never go back to what was, nor relegate digital education to the dark recesses of educational minds again. The definition of mode of delivery needs to be overhauled and redefined.

Over the past number of years having been digitizing our programmes and drawing on technology to augment our learning and teaching activities, we have learnt many valuable lessons. Perhaps these lessons will assist those struggling to attune their thoughts to digital conversions of their learning programmes as turning digital is much more than putting webinars on a server and a must for education into the future as our clients in higher education are mostly digital natives who have never known a world without technology.

2. Lessons we have learnt. 

Here are some lessons we have had the luxury of time, to learn.

2.1 Educational Principles in Learning and Teaching in Virtual Space 

Learning and Teaching principles and theories must underpin the strategies which inform the digitization of educational programmes to achieve successful learning and teaching in the digital space. Cognitive theories indicate that student performance is linked to how learning is structured. Designing your digital education space cannot be a haphazard knee jerk reaction to a crisis and be left that way. It is imperative to bear in mind how students structure knowledge and to develop learning and teaching in the digital space in line with how students structure knowledge. Gagne, Wagner, Golas & Keller’s (2004) nine levels of learning, also relevant in a virtual world, should be a good starting point to consider in the design of instruction.

Digital education lends itself very well to the creation of individual learning pathways, which is a buzzword for future education, and blended learning which has been around in education for some time. Individual learning pathways meets the individual learning needs of students through a variety of methods, and the various types of blended learning which is a combination of teaching methodologies including contact and digital, synchronized and asynchronous online teaching combinations, remote access to classrooms, among others.

2.2 Questions to Consider

A number of questions need to be considered. What research will support your decision to include or exclude features in your design, e.g. a theory developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000) which still holds true today, discusses the 3 presences which should be evident in the virtual module. One of these is the social presence. How will you ensure that you have a sound social presence bearing in mind that many South African Students are field dependent learners? The cognitive styles of Field Dependent (FD) and Field Independent(FI) learners must be catered for in the design of digital learning spaces. Simplistically stated, FD learners have a strong need for structure and teacher guidance, whereas FI learners prefer a measure of autonomy. What will you do to reduce the anxieties of FD students especially if compounded by a lack of online learning experience?

What resources need to be included and why. How do resources need to be included? How does the lecturer increase their social presence in the module? How can a discussion forum increase opportunities for communication on the learning content, between lecturer and student? Is there a need for synchronized or asynchronous tutorials or both and what would be the frequency of such tutorials? How would all these resources integrate to create a coherent whole in the digital education space rather than be a cluster of uncoordinated learning resources? What teaching methodologies will be adopted? How skilled and experienced are teaching staff, in online learning and teaching?

2.2.1 Lecturer Skills and Student Centred Learning in the Digital Education Space 

Education in the 21st century needs to be student centred whether in a physical or virtual classroom. Lecturing to a passive group of students is teacher centred and not conducive to the inculcation of higher order thinking skills. The combination of lecturing in a synchronized or asynchronous tutorial and students who are field dependent, is a recipe for ineffective learning and teaching. At higher education level, the responsibility of the institution is to develop critical thinking and problem solving abilities in their students, not just focus on content. Lecturers that have been compelled in this difficult time, to turn to online webinars should consider what teaching methods to use to encourage participation. Tutorials which are purely in lecture mode are least effective.

It is not a given that someone who is an experienced teacher or lecturer, will know how to conduct online learning and teaching. Many of our academics are from a generation a couple of times removed from the generations we find at higher education institutions at the present time. The chasm between those lecturers and students who effortlessly navigate through the elearning space and those who struggle with basic computer literacy is significant.

The reality is that many lecturers and students have little experience of online learning and teaching and frequently try to transfer the contact classroom methodologies to the online classroom. As mentioned, the danger is that real learning does not take place, real learning in the sense of teaching students higher order thinking and problem solving as part of their mastery of the learning content. The lecturer will need to think about and understand the link between effective teaching in a digital environment far removed from their students on the one hand, and the nurturing of higher order thinking among their students.

Then there are the peripheral aspects to bear in mind, such as how you introduce the tutorial. So many, forget a simple principle such as providing students with the objectives of the tutorial. Will the background behind the lecturer be a distraction? Duration of the tutorial is an important factor. Too long and students lose focus. Too short and students feel hard done by. Poor lighting and students can’t see the speaker’s face and they comment on that. Preventing disruptions such as pets, children and others interrupting the tutorial is another small but important aspect to consider.

The above suggest that there is a need to do ongoing skills training among teaching staff and evaluation of the quality of teaching. How do you train lecturers? Ongoing skills development sessions in virtual space, allows teaching staff to attend via their computer or cell phone or view recordings of training sessions. Teaching staff should also be given a voice through a dedicated discussion forum. How does one maintain the sense of community among the academic community of the institution? Create a dedicated space on the learning management system which will serve as their virtual meeting room.

2.2.2 Student Responsibilities in the Learning and Teaching Process 

How do you get students to participate in a tutorial, whether synchronized or asynchronous? We have learnt that few students participate in the live sessions and we have speculated, surveyed and read about the reasons for this. A couple of these reasons include, the time scheduled for tutorials, and students being reluctant to prepare for the tutorial where they may be required to participate. We have found that most students prefer to view the recordings.

Students who view recordings of lecturers view them passively and are disinclined to engage with learning content. How would you try to engage students even when no student has pitched up to the etutorial? How do you design your etutorial to encourage critical thinking and problem solving? How  will you assist your students to engage with learning content as they work through it?

What role will continuous assessment play in encouraging students to actively engage with learning content? In this day and age of immediacy, providing students with immediate feedback to short continuous assessment activities is an effective way for them to gauge how well they are achieving the module outcomes and provides them with immediate feedback and incentive to progress through the learning content.

2.2.3 Guidance to students 

Students too, need training on how to navigate the learning management system and how to respond to activities set for them. Short ‘how to’ clips placed strategically in relevant spaces in the digital module, providing clear instructions on how to use specific areas in the module can easily be produced with simple software such as screencast or other such software. This kind of guidance goes a long way to making students feel more secure and providing them with the direction they need.

2.2.4 Keeping in touch with your clients aka students 

The management of communication is key in the digital environment. In the physical space, information is often conveyed through students and staff sharing information incidentally during the course of their interaction within the physical space. Non-verbal cues assist in understanding the messages conveyed. This provides a context for the information. In virtual space, however, these incidental and non-verbal cues are often reduced or lost. There needs to be a balance between flooding students with information, on the one hand, and ensuring that everyone has all the information they need. The more balanced the dissemination of information is, the fewer questions born out of confusion, frustration, or insecurity, are generated, but without overwhelming students with information.

What communication strategy will you put in place to keep both teaching and support staff and all importantly, students, informed yet avoiding cluttering their mailboxes? What processes and digital means will you use to ensure that you are listening to your students and what they need? A number of strategies to be considered may include the following: Strategically timed announcements  keep students informed of changes, new developments and any other information they need to be cognizant of. Information and question and answer sessions, in virtual space between faculty and students, help students feel part of a community and that they concerns are heard.

Consider how you can integrate various social media , such as facebook, whatsapp, Linkedin and others, into the communication strategy. Slack and Team are further vehicles for communication and collaboration, which will no doubt enhance the field dependent student’s learning experience.

A strong student support department with dedicated well informed support staff assisting students timeously with queries is a vital component in assisting students with all kinds of queries. A dedicated communication channel, which is continually monitored, for students to query technical aspects, e.g. unable to upload an assignment on the learner management system, assists in reducing frustration and anxiety among students. A key component is the turnaround time for responses to student queries.

2.3 Technical aspects 

The choice of learning management system will be decided by what the needs of the institution, are. Will it be outsourced or maintained by the institution? What security features are built into the system? Will the management system be flexible enough to ‘bend’ and adapt to your learners’ specific needs without necessarily calling in the expertise of outside service providers, which will only serve to increase costs and force you to be dependent on them for any changes. Open source learner management systems are just as good if not better than many of the smaller, lesser known ones which have not been around for long and which may not always have the variety of features which the larger ones do. One also needs to ensure that you are certain of the longevity of the learning management system which you select. Will they be around in 20 years? Does their track record show that they are in tune with cutting edge developments in digital education? Are they constantly upgrading their features in line with the needs of the education? What is their support like?

Does the learning management system offer a mobile and desktop app version, which are imperative as there are very large disparities of access to technology and data accessibility among students. These apps often serve as a lifeline to those students who are in outlying areas as they provide students with offline access to their learning materials and uploading of assessments via smart phones and desktop apps.

Accessibility, privacy and security are all extremely important aspects to consider when selecting any software in education. Will you need to provide data to assist disadvantaged students to download the app on their smart phones?

’Traffic’ on the learning management system, provides valuable information and identifies students who are not visiting the learning material or visiting too infrequently. Data provided by the learner management system provides important information about students at risk, and allows teaching staff to be proactive rather than reactive through timeous interventions.

The choice of software for synchronous and asynchronous tutorials will depend on the purpose for which you need it. What security measures are there to ensure your tutorials won’t get hacked? Does the software company respond to the tightening of security features? From a learning and teaching point of view, does the software include a whiteboard feature? Can you share your screen? Does the software record videos, which you included in your tutorial? Does it have a chat feature? Can you conduct polls during the tutorial? Can students write on the whiteboard should you require of them to do so?

How does the uploading of interactive content impact on server capacity? How will your server cope if all your students access the online module at the same time to upload an assignment?

2.4 Other skills required in the development and maintenance of the digital education space 

Digital education is not only the domain of the academic. Apart from the academic input into the digital development of the module, consider the opinions of those who are more attuned to the marketing side of your learning management system. Other vital input from departments such as IT and administration contribute to the creation of coherent digital education space. These teams need to collaborate on a regular basis. Work closely with the IT department on server related issues especially when you introduce multi-media and other software such as plugins into your digital education space. How can administrative processes be adapted for greater automation? Listen to student observations. Is the learning management system, user friendly, i.e. is it easy to navigate? Is the space visually pleasing so that students want to visit the site and find it easy to find their way around it?

3. Conclusion 

Technology can enhance the facilitation of learning and teaching or hinder it. The secret in thorough planning in order to keep things simple, to keep your finger on the pulse of the dynamic nature of students’ needs in conjunction with best practice in online learning and teaching and adapt when necessary.

List of Sources 

Gagne R, Wagner W, Golas K, & Keller J, 2004, Principles of Instructional Design, (5th ed), Cengage Learning Inc.

Garrison, D. Anderson, T. & Archer, W. 2000, Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2, 87-105.

Martin M & Godonoga A, 2020, SDG 4 – Policies for Flexible Learning Pathways in Higher Education Taking Stock of Good Practices Internationally, UNESCO, International Institution for Educational Planning, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000372817 Downloaded 24 April 2020