Why offline? It's very personal

Desire to protect status and student contact fuels resistance to e-learning. Rebecca Attwood writes

October 22, 2009

Academics are resistant to e-learning because they feel it threatens their identity as tutors and because they want to protect face-to-face teaching relationships, a study has found.

Janet Hanson, head of education enhancement at Bournemouth University, conducted a group interview with nine academics and in-depth individual interviews with a further five at a university in the south of England.

She found that when academics saw that their students' technological expertise exceeded their own, their identities as "expert knowledge providers" was undermined.

In such cases, academics perceive a shift in the balance of power between themselves and their students, Dr Hanson writes, losing their role as the "gatekeepers" of knowledge.

One lecturer, whose students set up their own website to share material, spoke of her concern about students' overuse of the web as a source of knowledge and their inability to discriminate between different sources.

Another interviewee explained that she had felt "out of control" when she started to use PowerPoint in her lectures, with her academic presence "reduced to a mechanical process of pressing a key on the PC to change the slides".

She felt she had "given away" her academic presence in the lecture theatre to the technology.

Several scholars made self-deprecating remarks about their not being ready to embrace e-learning, referring to themselves as "a stick-in-the-mud" and "naughty".

But those interviewed believed that face-to-face contact between academic and student was more important than technology, and that e-learning should supplement rather than replace this.

The idea of universities making the use of e-learning technologies mandatory "horrified" many of them.

The paper, "Displaced but not replaced: the impact of e-learning on academic identities in higher education", in the journal Teaching in Higher Education, says that resistance to e-learning stems from a desire to protect personal relationships and is "entirely rational".

"The concerns of these 'mainstream' academics about e-learning arise from a strong desire to protect a very powerful feature of their academic identity, their close and successful face-to-face relationship with their students," it says.

However, while the academics questioned were not yet prepared to embrace the "disembodiment" or "repositioning" required by e-learning, the paper warns that those who do not use e-learning could ultimately damage their relationships with students, who may turn to other sources of knowledge and collaboration with their peers.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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