Panacea or Empty Promise – Can learning technology overcome the challenges of large class teaching?

The numbers of students entering full-time higher education in the United Kingdom has increased rapidly over the last 20 years.  In many institutions this has resulted in larger class sizes, with numbers of students undertaking core modules often exceeding 250 students.  The challenge facing higher education, driven by financial pressures to accept increasing student numbers, is how to evolve the student learning experience to meet the expectations of today’ s students.  Didactic teaching in ever-larger lecture theatres may not constitute the optimal approach.  Recognising this many institutions have seized on new technologies in teaching and learning as a potential solution to this problem.In response to pressure from our own institution to adopt e-learning as a panacea for all the ills of large cohorts, my colleague Andy Gale (@AWGale) and I began our own investigation into whether the selective use of learning technology can overcome the challenge of large cohort teaching in Higher Education and deliver an enhanced student learning experience. The resulting paper, Digital vs Didactic: Using learning technology to confront the challenge of large cohort teaching, published in 2012 in the British Journal of Educational Technology , describes the development and evaluation of a campus-based management course taught to 270 3rd year engineering undergraduates at The University of Manchester. The course is structured around weekly keynote lectures, supplemented with extensive use of a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) and key social media applications.

In brief, our findings confirmed that our use of the VLE together with additional social media tools did enhance the student learning experience.  Specifically students valued the ability to download the lecture notes from the VLE and the provision of quizzes and case studies to test learning and aid exam preparation.  However, students still ranked the keynote lectures as the most effective tool for learning.

We posit three main reasons for this apparent dissonance in our findings:

1. Students are strategic learners

   Our study showed a clear student preference for the tools that were most explicitly aligned with delivering the desired course outcomes – ie, passing the course unit. In a very large class the VLE provides an efficient mechanism for ensuring that all students gain access to all course material, even if they miss a lecture, and for allowing students to practise examples and test their understanding of material: tasks which are logistically difficult to achieve in a very large lecture theatre.

2. Pay close attention to course design

In harnessing learning technology to enhance the student learning experience this study demonstrated that teaching faculty must pay close attention to the design of the learning activities.  Our mixed experience with discussion boards and facebook was a salutary lesson for us that learning outcomes and assessment criteria must be well thought out in advance to encourage the usage of a particular learning tool. This is particularly important in a very large class, where minor mismatch between tool and task can lead to frustration and lack of engagement by students.  Tools will only be used if they are perceived useful by students or if they are designed to form part of the students’ assessment.  For example, collaborative working to produce a group based assessment might have been better implemented through the use of googledocs or a wiki as opposed to facebook.

 3. Face-to face interaction with teaching faculty remains paramount

Learning technology is not a panacea – however much University Managers would wish it were so.  Our study showed emphatically that the most effective learning tool for the majority of students remained the face to face interaction during the keynote lectures.  Technology was seen at best as an adjunct to the weekly keynote lectures and in no sense a replacement for it.

It is our hope that these lessons will inform current and future teaching practice.  There is no doubt that learning technology fulfils an important role in today’s HE landscape, a role which will only grow as the digital literacy of future generations of students increases.  However it is incumbent on Universities not to view learning technology as a convenient means of reducing student contact time, or increasing staff student ratio’s, but rather as another weapon in the armoury of academic staff to use in an appropriate, well-designed and measured way to enhance the student learning experience.

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