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Opening the Door to Learner Participation in Projects


Last modified 20 Jun, 2007
Published 20 Jun, 2007
The beneficiaries of institutional projects are often the students, but how often do we ask them about what they want out of a project? In putting together a bid to JISC, Paul Richardson and Graham Hall from Coleg Harlech asked a small group of students about the social software technologies they were using and why. The answers provide an interesting snapshot of the student experience at Coleg Harlech.

The Issue

The relationship between teachers and learners vis-a-vis new technologies has changed radically over the last few years. Not long ago, institutions would be providing learners with their first email account, and perhaps even their first experience of the Internet. Facilities at college would be vastly better than anything they would have at home. However, the widespread use of Web 2.0 software and services, coupled with broadband and mobile phones, has changed all of that. Learners now enter our classrooms in possession of the hardware and know-how to carry out sophisticated tasks and networking, some of which may be beyond the reach of the teacher. This rate of change is likely to continue, or even to accelerate, and during the lifetime of a project the services which are in use are likely to change radically. We are therefore on a hiding to nothing if we attempt to anticipate at the outset of a project the technologies which learners may be using by the end.

Technologies and systems which are sponsored by institutions will inevitably become outmoded, but not necessarily useless. We need to be clear about the purpose of these systems, and not to simply jump on the latest bandwagon.

We therefore favour a different approach (also consistent with the JISC e-Framework, and the Personal Learning Environment (PLE)), namely to consult with learners about their existing skills and needs at the beginning of the project (i.e. at the bid-writing stage), and to build in flexible support systems, informed by the interests of all stakeholders.

What We Did

In a short focus group discussion, we asked a group of seven learners a number of questions, including "Which technologies are you currently using, and why?". "If you were starting again, what is it you would most like to have known about from the outset?". "Which technologies would you like to see appearing more consistently in the course?" and "What are your aspirations for next year?"

What we Found

  • All of the learners were consistently and regularly using a range of web-based services (e.g. Blogging, MySpace , YouTube )
  • Typically, they had already experimented with various tools, and had settled on a preferred option for each function (e.g. Flickr , Photobucket and Ringo were all used for photo-sharing). Interestingly, they were all able to discuss specific features in a way which indicated that they were highly discerning users.
  • They had learned a lot about social software during the year. Some take-up of technology had been largely spontaneous and informal (e.g. with photosharing software mentioned above), whereas other take-up had been teacher-initiated (e.g. Flock , Del.icio.us , Deviantart , etc.).
  • Five of the seven learners planned to move on to HE courses, and all were willing to share their experience and skills with new groups of learners.
  • When prompted, all expressed an interest in the idea of an electronic portfolio, or a PDP.

Conclusions

  • Our conception that these learners are adept and discerning users of current technology was strongly supported by the discussion
  • The near-random takeup of different Web services for a specific function may have implications for interoperability, and the project needs to address these with reference to the current models of SOA.
  • Teachers and institutions need to become more skillful at enabling informal learning to take place, and to identify ways in which this can support and complement formal learning.
  • For these learners, social learning is a crucial component of their experience. This means that they provide a very useful model of social learning under quite intensive conditions.
  • This approach will help us to build up a rich picture of the learner experience, and enable us to take account of the perspective of all stakeholders when designing the learning activities.
 

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