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Improving opportunities for student learning: We hear their voices but do we listen to their messages?

Eileen Thompson
Economics & Commerce, Education and Law
The University of Western Australia
The importance of addressing student needs is not a new issue for universities and suggestions for addressing student concerns are continually emerging. What makes this issue so difficult to address however is the ongoing and changing nature of the pressures on students in universities, and the struggle teachers and administrators have to give student needs the priority desirable in times of varying states of turmoil in the tertiary sector. University teaching and learning is being affected by factors such as financial constraints, increasing workloads and infrastructure change but many staff continue to make improving opportunities for student learning their focus. This paper considers aspects of course design and delivery pertinent to recent changes in student profiles, particularly in relation to the increasing number of hours of work undergraduates students are combining with full time study. Some of the initiatives occurring at The University of Western Australia aimed at promoting flexible teaching practices and improving opportunities student learning are discussed.

Introduction

Along with research, teaching and learning are the core business of universities, involving a complex exchange of information and the development of new understandings between students and teachers. In recent years there have been significant changes in the global arena in regard to the structure, function and financing of universities. Bates (2000, p.8) identifies three aspects of these changes in universities: "the need to do more with less, the changing learning needs of society, and the impact of new technologies on teaching and learning". One of the most notable challenges facing universities is to respond to the impetus towards life long learning and flexible delivery of education. In regard to teaching, Biggs (1999) reports these changes are evident in the larger numbers of school leavers going on to university, the introduction of higher education fees, increasing student diversity, larger class sizes and more vocationally oriented courses. The student body is sending a message expressing a need for more flexibility in terms of time, place and mode of study. All of these factors pose challenges for both teachers and students, challenges that must be addressed at both the institutional level through policy and structural change, and at the academic level through personal reflection and adaptation.

Although the meaning of learning remains eternal, the way we facilitate and support effective learning is changing (Steeples and Jones, 2002). To some extent this is reflected in the increasing use of collaborative learning activities in class and the inclusion of electronic communication such as email or discussion boards into the curriculum. This is not just a change brought about by the increasing use of computer based learning activities but is more a reflection of the pedagogical stance being adopted in universities. That is, learning outcomes are a reflection of several factors interacting in a semi-controlled system involving students, teachers and the learning environment. To take this one step further, students bring to a class a variety of prior knowledge, levels of ability and motivation to learn. The challenge for the teacher is to make this learning experience as rich and rewarding as is possible for each member of the class given this diversity in the group, and given the other constraints in which the teacher must operate (eg., workload pressures, subject knowledge, technical and administrative support).

Technology, and teaching and learning

Over the years much has been written about the potential of new technologies to improve learning on a global basis. In Australia for instance, the use of the radio as a delivery medium impacted significantly on our remote communities and provided an alternative for feedback and instructional guidance only previously achievable through written communication or more rarely through face to face interactions. Today, the Internet is making an impact as a powerful new means of communication. The use of the Internet makes it possible for more people to access knowledge and to learn in new and different ways (Kerrey & Isakson, 2000). Most school leavers in university today have grown up using computers as their medium for entertainment, communication and knowledge source. The promises of the Internet are well documented: This all sounds very promising from the student's perspective, particularly having the potential to take into account individual needs and circumstances. Students for instance are not restricted to just a face to face interaction with others in the class and with the teacher. The Internet provides the opportunity for communication with other members of the group on a more regular, generally more open and informal basis. Such a learning environment may be far less threatening to shy students or for those whose first language is not English. The availability of course information on unit web pages also provides an effective "cushion" for those students who may miss class occasionally, an increasing phenomenon given the financial and time pressure students face today. Unit web pages and electronic communication are regular features in many programs at The University of Western Australia (UWA).

Despite the reported increase in student and teacher interest in using the Internet in university programs, many staff recognise that they have not succeeded in effectively integrating the use of the Internet into their teaching and that workload pressures made it difficult to address this issue (Steeples and Jones, 2002). This is a complex situation providing a challenge for teachers, technicians, staff developers and administrators alike to cooperatively address within most institutions. For example, Diaz (2001) in discussing taking the technology into the classroom, emphasises pedagogy first and the need to empower the teacher to manage the learning environment with a focus on good teaching practices. With a focus on good teaching and learning principles, training in using the Internet is largely independent of subject area and becomes far more wide ranging in appeal. Fetherston (2001, p. 1) supports this view and states that "the debate surrounding the use of the Web in university teaching should centre around learning and not technical issues". That is, the Internet must be thought of not just as a delivery mechanism but as a potential teaching and learning tool. As an educational developer, this is a key function of my role in working with academic staff.

Such an approach also poses a challenge to students and implies an acceptance of the responsibility for learning by the student. Through access to such a broad spectrum of digital information, students are encouraged to bring their previous knowledge into the learning environment and to acquire a new level of meaning and attainment from such an experience. This is a very different viewpoint than that portrayed by the more transmissive content delivery type of approach. Adopting a more student centred approach to learning also poses challenges to those teachers of large classes, a very real issue in many undergraduate programs at Australian universities, including UWA. In addition to suggestions for incorporating small collaborative activities in large classes, some teachers are also using print workbooks with these groups. This is in some ways an extension of the system of providing copies of PowerPoint slides at the start of a lecture but places more emphasis on learning activities as checks for understanding and a more comprehensive framework for learning in independent study time.

Five years ago much of the discussion concerning the use of the Internet in teaching and learning centred around issues associated with access and equity. To some extent these issues have been addressed with universities generally providing more adequate on campus computing facilities (often available 24 hours per day and 7 days per week), and by providing "help desk" assistance to staff and students. More students also have computers of their own or access to computers at work. Internet access is often provided to students as part of their enrolment at university. Other students also choose to open accounts with private Internet providers.

Many students entering university have computer literacy skills exceeding those of their teachers. These students have generally been well rehearsed in searching online and in utilising basic word processing, spreadsheet and statistical packages during their years of primary and secondary education. Staff on the other hand, with the exception of self acknowledged technology "geeks" are much more dependent on the technical support and training readily available to them within their university. Catering for the information technology needs of teachers has been a significant challenge for most universities, particularly given the financial constraints effecting the tertiary sector in recent times.

Flexibility, and teaching and learning

A recent report commissioned by the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee (AVCC) (Long & Hayden, 2001) canvassed the views of over 30,000 undergraduate students from across Australia and highlights the serious financial and time pressures they experience. The report indicates that not only are more students in paid employment during the semester, but those who are employed are working longer hours. The implications are that students are finding it increasingly difficult to attend all classes and that they are exerting pressure on teachers to be more flexible in their delivery mode (eg., making lecture note summaries available online, audio recording and streaming of lecture presentations). Students are also asking for less emphasis on attendance requirements, and more openness and detailed information about assessment tasks. Previously this has been a "bone of contention" for many students with teachers sometimes using the promise of providing tips for assignments and exams in class. Worse still, some teachers still utilise the surprise short exam in class.

The fact that more undergraduate students are now in paid employment during the course of their studies also poses a challenge of a different kind for teachers, that of how to integrate more effectively the work experience the students are gaining into the curriculum. By assisting students to get employment in areas that are relevant to their course, students are not only likely to derive educational benefit from such positions but also to improve their motivation to learn. For teachers this may require a review of assessment tasks to enable students to demonstrate appropriate application of theoretical concepts.

The importance of reminding ourselves that "students need quality teaching in order to be effective learners and successful graduates" (Stickels and Radloff, 1996, p. 1) should not be under estimated, even in these difficult times of increasing workloads and rising class sizes. Students are astute education consumers and when consulted, are able to provide valuable feedback on teaching approaches and course design (eg., written surveys, anecdotal comments, interviews). Perhaps in the past we have under utilised student feedback in evaluating teaching and innovations in teaching.

Raising the profile of teaching and learning at university, particularly in a research intensive university, requires a cohesive approach across a number of sectors including student bodies, management, administrative groups, academics and support areas such as the library and technical staff. It seems to work most effectively when there is a combination of both a "top down" and "bottom up" approach. Forums for sharing of information and ideas about teaching and learning policy and initiatives are usually well received, particularly when they are available at a time and place that is convenient and seen as "non-threatening" to staff. The establishment of a Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CATL) at UWA was a strategic initiative to support change in the way teaching and learning is organised and managed.

Improving opportunities for student learning is an ongoing issue and one presenting many challenges for universities. This is a complex task but the importance of addressing such issues must be acknowledged if we are to succeed in promoting effective teaching and learning in universities.

References

Bates, A. W. (2000). Managing technological change: Strategies for college and university leaders. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does. Buckingham, UK: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Diaz, D. P. (2001, November/December). Taking technology to the classroom: Pedagogy-based training for educators. The Technology Source. http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=924 [viewed 2 Nov 2001]

Fetherston, T. (2001). Pedagogical challenges for the World Wide Web. Educational Technology Review, 1.
http://www.aace.org/pubs/etr/fetherston.cfm
[viewed 9 Nov 2001]

Kerrey, B., & Isakson, J. (2000). The power of the Internet for learning: Moving from promise to practice. Washington DC: Web-based Education Commission.

Long, M., & Hayden, M. (2001, September). Paying their way: A survey of Australian undergraduate university student finances, 2000. A report conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) for the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee (AVCC).

Steeples, C., & Jones, C. (2002). Networked learning: Perspectives and issues. London: Springer.

Stickels, C. and Radloff, A. (1996). Is it really so hard to respond with your 'best shot' to the individual learning needs of your students? In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Teaching and Learning Within and Across Disciplines, p.157-160. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching and Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1996. Perth: Murdoch University. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf96/stick157.html [viewed 21 Nov 2001]

Author: Eileen Thompson, Instructional Designer, Economics & Commerce, Education & Law, The University of Western Australia. Email: eileen.thompson@uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Thompson, E. (2002). Improving opportunities for student learning: We hear their voices but do we listen to their messages? In Focusing on the Student. Proceedings of the 11th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 5-6 February 2002. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2002/thompson.html


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