Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Day two: All about e-learning

  • Q: Can you think of an instance when you might use e-learning in your teaching?
  • A: If the library burned down.
This was me, responding to a question posed in a 2003 session for postgraduates who were doing teaching at Durham University. It sounds pretty stupid now (to be fair, it probably sounded pretty stupid then too) but things have changed a lot. My first email address was provided by Durham University in 1996, and that was also the first time I had free access to the internet, which I found quite challenging. I wasn't technologically ignorant - we'd had a computer in the house from at least 1984 and I had word-processed most of my coursework from 1993 onwards.

Everything that I teach now is supported by Moodle, a VLE. The slides from my lectures appear there, copies of handouts, my module descriptors, assessment briefs, dropboxes for online submission, and additional resources. Gone are the days of using overhead projectors and battered handouts. That's pretty standard in HE nowadays.

I miss though, the idea of students taking notes. A lot of mine don't. They rely on a combination of the slides and their memory. I said, deliberately, that I miss 'the idea of students taking notes'. Raking through my own undergraduate notes in the attempt to find something useful for my teaching, and discovered that they were so patchy and banal, they were useless to me. Having said that, I think that there's a lot of research done into how writing things down helps convert them from short-term to long-term memory so perhaps the act of note-taking in and of itself is a valuable learning tool irrespective of whether it produces a useful result (c.f. Derrida). I'll pick up on this later.

Today, I had an email from a student telling me that the 'online book' to which I had sent him a link was, for some reason, unavailable. It is unavailable because it was a link to the library catalogue, identifying a physical resource. This is actually pretty often the case, in my experience, with undergraduates (and you can't really blame them) until they're working on a dissertation or similar. We provide so many resources through online tools like Moodle, and they have access to the whole internet, so why bother reading a book?

I find this a tricky one. I want my students to use physical books and to use online resources. I want them to fall in love with the library (and by 'the library' I suppose I'm really signifying some kind of Platonic Ideal Library). Apart from anything else, some of my happiest memories of undergraduate study are being buried in the outsized scores section of the library marveling at the strange and wonderful notation I was discovering for the first time. I want them to have that experience. But that's the problem with teaching: you can't teach your 18-year-old self; you have teach the students that are there.

Another problem with online resources (and with the much-vaunted celebration of Digital Natives) is a common failure to identify and respect primary sources. A student references a blog; the lecturer looks up this reference and finds that the blog is referencing a published book. A lack of critical engagement as well leads to academic equivocality - a blog written by a 6-year-old is regarded as holding as much authority as a blog by an established academic. This isn't always a bad thing as we lionise our 'prize academics' probably beyond their modesty, but I think it's a matter of being able to recognise good methodology no matter what platform is accessed. I am struck by the naivete of many students who prize the opinions of anyone they can find through a Google search over their own powers of synthesis and logic, but I think I'm getting away from my main intention with this post here. I'll return to academic study skills tomorrow (joy).

 I met the librarian with specific responsibility for the music collection in passing on Monday and we talked a little bit about this. We've agreed that there may be ways to incorporate library skills into performance modules (repertoire hunt, for example), and I will be designing a 'scavenger hunt' for the new 1st year students that will require them to hunt out physical resources as well as online resources.

Perhaps this is the answer: more quizzes, more prizes. Fool them into becoming familiar with these study environments in the guise of light entertainment (as posited by Benjamin I suppose!). But it takes time and energy to design these - it's not just a matter of saying 'ah yes! we will do this'.

From the initial question posed to our class in 2003, I feel now that we are faced with its opposite question:
  • Can you think of an instance when you might rely on students reading a physical book?
At present, my answer is that I would be hard pressed to insist upon this. Even if it is scanned in and made available on Moodle, I find it difficult to get an entire class to read anything. If they have to venture into the library...

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