Friday, 2 October 1998

Student Capabilty in HE

I wrote this for the Times Educational Supplement back in October 1998. It refelcts on how universities might change to reflect the incoming capabilities of a new generation of students.

Looking back, I don't think universities, in general, have made any of these potential steps forward and indeed a little later, in 2001/02 after a discussion with the Financial Times, I asked Mark Constable to survey all UK universities (which he did very creatively and well) to see to what extent they were offering progression and continuity to this new generation of technology capable students. To say the results were bleak is an understatement and it is now clear that universities, with a few honourable exceptions, now stand as a huge barrier to the progress we might make with ICT in learning.

A virus of 1970s managerialism (with its dated emphasis on standardising, on planning by budget, on input-output and on disaggregation) seems to be rushing through HE just when we need the collegiality and agility that used to characterise the sector.

Probably the only hope now is to establish a host of new tiny, agile, focussed, new universities... but more of this elsewhere.

Developing students' ICT skills

All universities in the UK (and most around the world) are currently dedicating resources to the task of advancing their students' capabilities with computers. In many cases those resources are very considerable indeed. So, what is needed?, what are the choices?, what works and what doesn't work?, what other strategies might be adopted to make the most of this investment?

Before starting it is worth reflecting that software and hardware both change rapidly and this change will continue, accelerating even. There are two consequences that result from this pace of development: firstly, in the three years of a typical undergraduate's life vast changes will occur (where were on-line learning communities or pocket Java tablets back in 1995 for example?) and for this reason it is always wisest to focus on the meta skills that transcend the simple operation of any one particular package. It is substantially less important that a student can work on a unique software application (for example, a particular version of WordPerfect) than that they are able to understand the defining functions of most word processors and apply them to their writing. Secondly the capability of incoming students is advancing as rapidly as the technology and this applies to both those arriving straight from school and from those mature students arriving from the workplace. Yesterdays roomful of wide eyed computer virgins learning a suite of standard applications has gone. Students enter higher education with a wide range of technical expertise, with a diversity of hardware and with a multiplicity of mail service providers. Students coming directly from school have a curriculum that prescribes these levels of capability with precision for example.

So, what strategies work in these new and changing circumstances? Just as agreeing a book list with the library well ahead of the semester start is essential so agreeing the software packages essential to complete a module and ensuring that adequate training resources are in place will be essential too. At the departmental or faculty level if there are essential tasks or applications (for example building 3D animations in architecture, or exploring AVID cards in media degrees) there will certainly also be strong one on one training materials available for students to use in their own time, at their own pace. Some software comes with ts own comprehensive help built in, often with complex "Help" options to illustrate the power of an application; the availability of good support material should be a deciding factor in any university's software purchase decisions - what use is cheap software if the cost of learning to use it is astronomical?

Beyond these "in the box" help solutions other training materials vary from largely ineffectual video examples (watch me and learn...) to bespoke CD-ROM products that offer "at your workstation" support for both basics and advanced techniques. Key2's excellent Training on CD series offer full scale screen recordings of how to do everything from basics to what they describe as "cool stuff" and "masterclasses". These individual materials provide student capability at minimal cost to either the students or to the faculty but a necessary organisational detail is the provision of (ideally) 24 hour access to the computer equipment to fit in with individuals needs and schedules. CD-ROMs tutorials can be borrowed on short loan tickets of course, just like library books.

Many universities have found that a mentor system will allow existing undergraduates to trade their support of incoming freshers for better access to a computer suite. As with the infamous pyramid selling student capability widens at an almost exponential rate, again at minimal cost. A combination of self help materials and mentor support will yield really rapid results.

Beyond this immediate support at faculty level there are three cast iron rules of thumb that minimise the problems universities face with improving student capability:

Firstly, do anything to encourage regular use and activity. Many universities find that the simplest and most effective strategy for increasing the ICT capability of incoming students is to place an ethernet socket in the bedrooms of halls of residence, advertise the fact well in advance of student arrival and wait. Regular daily use breeds capability. Similarly 24 hour access suites are dramatically more effective than 12 or 18 hour access.

Secondly, motivate student use. Simply requiring students to word process their essays will neither change the world nor their levels of capability. On the other hand offering a first 'rough mark' of word processed drafts which can then be refined and 'finessed' will immediately and dramatically improve motivation and capability and demonstrate where the real pressure for open access areas lies. Similarly making an email debate between students a key precursor to a face to face seminar with the tutor will dramatically turn around the students' capability with email and, as many universities have found, also signal an early warning of poor motivation or shallow engagement. Make it part of the course and capability happens.

Thirdly, reward student capability. Many universities now offer a computing "driving test" but tying this into the minimum pay rates offered by university student employment agencies is massively motivating in the current impecunious climate. Students with computer capability can and do attract better part time work. Advertise and support this.

A substantial student group, that cannot be addressed by self help materials, or by the carrot and stick rules of thumb above, are those mature students who have minimal exposure to computer technology. They often report fear, stress, alarm, despondency and worse of all a loss of their fragile esteem whenever they are sat near a computer. However research suggests that it is not a techno-phobia at work here but a simple lack of vocabulary. Not knowing what the 'proper name' is for the components of a computer screens display leaves an underlying fear of 'making me look a complete fool' and this is at the root of the stress and fear. For this group a quiet series of sessions around a large projection screen literally becoming comfortable with the vocabulary of computer life is the most effective capability builder. Armed with the right words, asking for help from peers in an open access lab is far less daunting.

Finally it is worth remembering that many universities come at the whole problem from the wrong direction. Students by and large these days are ICT capable. But that capability is often with some other application, some other computer or some other mail system to the university's "standard". Standardising university procedures and systems to minimise training problems only exacerbates the difficulty. The more you prescribe, the more students fail to fit that prescription and are then in need of support and training. The opposite is more likely to provide a cheap strategy that will be future proof. Design systems on the basis of student diversity and the need to support or develop student capability will be immediately diminished. A large number of network points, a university policy wedded to Internet protocols only and individual choice will get by with a lean resource of self help materials and enthusiastic mentoring.

And that is cheap and achievable for all of us.

© Stephen Heppell October 1998