Widening student participation through technology

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Universities can gain from employing digital tools in their teaching and learning strategies, writes John Donovan

No two students are the same. It has long been discussed as to why students, who have performed equally well through their school careers and put the same amount of work in to their university degree, might complete their course with drastically different results.

Differential attainment is most commonly associated with students entering university from different backgrounds, or having disparate schooling experiences. However, despite socio-economic factors having received attention in this area, what has potentially been less explored is the impact the actual learning environment at university has on student accessibility and success.


Learning in the digital age

In recent years, student expectations of education have changed. The modern student cohort now enters university with almost an entire lifetime of experience using digital technology. However, higher education institutions have found it difficult to transform the way they deliver their courses despite the potential benefit this could bring to students who are so accustomed to using technology to consume information.

The challenge for universities often lies in decentralised decision making and issues with infrastructure and funding. But coupled with this, can be a lack of skill sets needed to manage a fundamental overhaul to the way a course is delivered. For lecturers who are used to teaching students using PowerPoint presentations and set readings, moving into a world of e-textbooks and interactive learning tools can be quite a change

So, what do students stand to gain from universities upgrading to a modern style of learning?

An engaging approach

By providing individual, digital access to core content, universities can add value for students through equality of access. It is true that digital resources can present significant cost savings to students due to the way universities can work with publishers and suppliers to adopt the texts. Universities can leverage their buying power to create an economy of scale greater than that exerted by individual students buying course materials on the open market. That economy of scale is used to drive prices down; a cost saving that can be passed along to students.

However, what these texts also offer students is the opportunity to increase their engagement with the material and work in a collaborative way with their lecturers and peers. Nowadays, it is safe to assume every student owns at least one portable digital device, whether this is their smartphone, laptop or tablet. These devices allow students to be constantly connected to their friends; sharing ideas and messages between one another. Universities can choose to embrace this and allow students to reflect these habits in their studies.

Digital learning resources allow students to create working groups, in which they can share notes between themselves and with their lecturers. Research conducted by VitalSource has shown that 89 per cent of students also take their personal devices to lectures with them and were interested in using them to help with last-minute reading or to verify something in class. By empowering students to access their materials in a flexible, responsive way, lecturers may get more out of the sessions they provide with a classroom that is better engaged with the course materials. Students also benefit from improved contact time with their lecturers, meaning both parties are able to get the most of their relationship, and students perceptions of teaching quality may improve.  

Digital tools have a secondary benefit of providing more than one way for students to absorb information. By employing innovative teaching methods that include tools such as video and interactive quizzes, lecturers can create a learning experience that isn’t solely centred on traditional written materials. This could benefit students who struggle with traditional teaching methods and allow greater inclusivity and, therefore, open up opportunities for universities to tap into a new pool of prospective students.

Measuring success

Universities can gain from employing digital tools in their teaching and learning strategies. Through the analytical tools digital learning resources provide, lecturers are able to get a view of the level of engagement their students have with the texts that are set.

With students more focussed on gaining ‘value for money’ from their university degrees, it can be important for course leaders to understand where their students are engaged with the materials and who may be falling behind. In doing so, measures can be put in place to ensure student success before it is too late and exams are not sat, or coursework is not submitted. This can represent cost-savings for a university, as greater success throughout the course could lead to fewer students failing to complete their degrees. 

Universities and students stand to gain from a modern, flexible learning environment. Pairing the insights learning analytics can provide with digital tools that allow students to work collaboratively and engage with course materials in a variety of ways, can prove to be transformative for the education process. This approach could allow more students the chance to succeed at university and improve learning outcomes across the board.

John Donovan is managing director for EMEA at VitalSource