The Future of Third Level Education in Ireland 6 – Digital Learning

The topic of digital learning (not all of which has to be online) is one that tends to get academics very agitated. On the one hand you have the advocates who have a quasi-religious belief in all things digital. On the other, you have those who are more naturally conservative and see the development of digital learning as part of the neoliberal agenda in which students are seen as little more than customers etc.

For my part, I’m pragmatic (as usual) and willing to adopt whatever methods have been proven to work. As someone who teaches engineering, the idea of adopting digital tools is nothing new – many engineering analyses lead to a sort of ‘dead-end’ where further progression demands a digital approach. In that case, getting the students to get their laptops out makes perfect sense.

But there’s more to it than that. In a recent paper I published in Chemical Engineering Education, I wrote this:

“Furthermore, the exercise presented here shows that the use of modern computer algebra systems reveals special functions with which many engineering students might be unfamiliar. But the unfamiliarity of these functions should not deter us from using them as long as they are easy to evaluate and as long as they make process calculations easier. While it can be argued that an over-reliance on computer algebra systems might contribute, in the long-term, to a general decline in students’ basic mathematical technique, there is no doubt that such tools provide enormous scope for learning by opening students’ eyes to a world of mathematics that they are currently unlikely to encounter in much of their formal engineering education. As educators, we need to use these tools in an intelligent way, not just as a means of avoiding laborious algebraic manipulations, but as a means of advancing our students’ mathematical knowledge. Furthermore, online tools like WolframAlpha that are available as smartphone apps provide an attractive environment for learning quite advanced topics in engineering computation in a way that is very much in tune with modern culture.”

In other words, there is a whole world of technology out there that can genuinely improve education. But we have to be choosy. For example, I am very unconvinced about the value of putting recorded lectures online as part of the whole ‘flipped classroom’ approach. (Indeed, I am sceptical of the entire flipped classroom idea but that’s for another day.) But I can see the value of technologies like screencasts which I already use myself. In effect we have to be open-minded but sceptical.

The other aspect of digital learning that we need to think about is the fact that the traditional model of third level education is becoming increasingly unsustainable. (I’m sure there will be many readers who will vehemently disagree with this!) Increased participation rates and demographic pressures mean that student numbers will continue to increase while lecturing staff numbers continue to decline or at best remain static. (Of course the introduction of fees is an option but that’s a whole other can of worms.)

This is the same dilemma that governments face when they have budget deficits; they can increase taxes, reduce spending or use a combination of both processes. In education, the entire emphasis seems to be on the funding side, the assumption being that the system must continue to do more and more and funding must be provided to make this possible. But as I have argued before, the system needs to do less and in a more cohesive way but it also needs to change the very nature of what it is doing.

The problem is that teaching loads for many are becoming unmanageable. Personally, my current teaching load (at 6.3 modules spread over 9 separate modules, excluding projects) is approaching my limit, assuming I engage in some scholarship. And, as the song says, “the only way is up”. But it’s not just a question of academics not wanting to do so much teaching; the reality is that when teaching loads become too high, quality suffers. If you are teaching parts of six different modules in one semester (as I did this academic year), there are just too many balls to be kept in the air, especially when those modules have a CA component.

For my part, I am going to reduce my contact time, make greater use of digital resources and – crucially – put more of an onus on the students to manage their own learning. And, surely, that’s not a bad thing. Rather than being a brave new world, it is actually a throwback to the days when third level education demanded a lot more independence from students – it’s just that now we have more tools available. In recent years, we have built, I believe, a dependency culture among students and it will do no harm to partly reverse this trend. We have been running – and not even to stand still – and the idea of just running faster and faster will not work in my view. But this goes against our natural instincts which are to become more and more ‘teacher-like’ rather than ‘lecturer-like’ in an effort to bring our students up to the required standard.

So, what kind of things am I talking about? Initially, it’ll mean more screencasts; more links to external websites, especially for material that is inherently visual; more use of online tools like WolframAlpha; and a greater expectation that students practice their problem-solving skills in their own time rather than in class time. I have already diluted the content of my courses over the years and I don’t think I can dilute it further, so I will have to cut down on ‘active learning’ time and let the students do more of it themselves. I do believe, incidentally, that lectures, at least when given to small classes, continue to form an important part of the educational experience – I am not advocating distance learning. Part of my reasoning for all of this is based on my own personality and my own style of learning. If I were a student I would want the system ‘off my back’. Personally, I always liked to figure things out on my own with a bit of peace and quiet. I would not like the modern university experience which is much more school-like. I suspect there are many like me.

Importantly, however, the transition to a more digitally focused approach to teaching is a time-consuming process – there is a lot of preparatory work involved. That is something that tends to be forgotten in much of the discussion around digital learning. But, even if it takes a couple of years to change the way you teach, there should be a long-term payoff.

And where are the humanities in all of this? That’s a difficult one because if you’re teaching a subject like English, there is no escaping the fact that your students must be able to write and that means they have to write a lot and you have to mark what they write. And you have to give them feedback. The interaction between the lecturer and the student in this case is a fundamentally human one and it is really hard to imagine how a digital approach can replace it. I can see why those in the humanities tend to be suspicious of the whole digital learning philosophy. A sustainable model for teaching of the humanities needs to be devised.

For those of us in the sciences and engineering (and probably the business-related subjects as well), greater use of digital methods needs to be viewed in a positive light. The important thing though is that digital approaches should not be seen as an end in themselves and setting digital targets is not necessarily consistent with improving quality. Digital solutions should be employed when they are better and, crucially, more efficient than traditional methods.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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3 Responses to The Future of Third Level Education in Ireland 6 – Digital Learning

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » The Future of Third Level Education in Ireland 6 – Digital Learning

  2. Anonymous says:

    Interesting article, as a past postgraduate (IT field), I knew in the first week who was going to do well in my class, it’s all about interest, if the interest and ambition to do well is there then self teaching using digital learning tools with tutor assistance when needed is very effective. As you say though the type of learning makes a difference with technical courses more suited to digital learning. Another article about types of learning suited to elearning –

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