Learning with a twist

February 7, 2003

Freshers are famous for partying but their socialising does not extend to chatting online, let alone using technology for study. Olga Wojtas reports on an initiative at Strathclyde University that aims to change all that

There is a widespread belief among academics that the new generation of entrants is not only computer literate but expects university courses to be underpinned by technology. However, a Strathclyde University survey of freshers has revealed that while most regularly use computers, they do not associate them with learning; instead, they prefer to use books and handouts.

Allison Littlejohn, lecturer in e-learning at Strathclyde's centre for academic practice, surveyed 400 new science, engineering and business students. She found that while more than half regularly used email and surfed the net, only a handful expected email to be part of their learning, and the web was less popular than the library as a resource.

Asked about how they had learnt at school, some 87 per cent of the science entrants said "from books", with 72 per cent citing handouts. Only 10 per cent had used CD-Roms and even fewer mentioned email, online discussions or videoconferencing.

"These findings are illuminating in that they reflect conservative attitudes towards learning. The expectation is for very traditional forms of teaching and learning, and that's how they have viewed their learning at school," Littlejohn says. The survey also asked how many pupils spent time in chatrooms. More than three-quarters said they had never taken part in online discussions and of these, only three said this had been a way of learning.

"They're equating it with chat but not learning," Littlejohn says. "It could be that they don't recognise learning when they're in social situations and don't recognise transferability of skills."

Almost two-thirds of science students said they would like training in IT skills to help them use e-learning. Most of those who were opposed to training claimed they already had the necessary computing skills. "However, interestingly, there was no direct correlation between students' level of computing qualifications and their desire for further IT training," Littlejohn says. She does not believe the students' response means they lack the skills for technology-supported study, since most have been regularly using technology (only 2 per cent said they did not want to use technology for learning).

There is, however, little evidence of self-study through computers, and Littlejohn warns that accessing information from the web can often simply mean cutting and pasting into homework - and "accessing information is not learning".

A key skill must be to decide how valid a source is, and then to be able to extract the information required for a particular task. "We expect students to do this whether they're using the internet or not," she says. "The difference is that in the library, they're selecting sources of information where you're assuming there's already been quality control by the publishers and by the library. The internet takes more effort."

While freshers may be expecting paper-based teaching, Strathclyde is a leader in the use of technology as a learning aid. The business faculty is in the third year of its "millennium student initiative", which has seen new students issued with free IBM ThinkPad laptops for their first year.

These are intended for personal and academic use. A wireless network on campus means the laptops do not have to be plugged in to access the internet.

Val Belton of the management science department says students' productivity has improved dramatically now that they can work in teams with the ThinkPads on problem-based learning.

The students sit round tables with flat-screen monitors on which each of them can project information to the class. Before this, it was difficult for groups of students to congregate around one machine in the computer lab.

Strathclyde is also keen that laptops are used in other classes. Another initiative, a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?- style assessment system, is being used this year for science and engineering student inductions.

The Natalie system, first developed in mechanical engineering and now used in a range of other disciplines, involves students being given a remote control with which to answer questions in lectures. A screen displays a bar chart showing what proportion of the class has selected each answer, with different colours marking the level of confidence, allowing the lecturer to check how far concepts are being grasped.

In an interactive session on personal effectiveness, the students are asked to think about their goals and motivation for study. They use the remote control to log what motivated them to finish a school assignment in their favourite subject, and the screen reveals how many students share similar motivations. They are also asked to think about their motivation in subjects they dislike and discuss their responses with students around them.

"This exercise demonstrates to students that learning at university can be different from what they have previously experienced. They have better access to technology to aid learning and can develop ideas through discussions with their peers," Littlejohn says.

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