There’s a conference happening as I type. It’s a conference on teaching and learning in higher education … and a student’s comments bring to mind a snippet of everyday life I heard about many years ago.
Annie lives in a small country town. She is married, has three children under the age of 7, and does not work outside the home. The eldest child catches the bus to and from school.
The family has one car and as Annie’s husband works in the bigger town 30 minutes away, and there is no public transport (apart from the school bus), he drives most days. That leaves Annie without a car. There are no shops or parks within walking distance and the hills and narrow roads make taking a four-year old and a baby for a walk a challenge.
The four-year old has discovered she likes mangoes. The enchantment with mangoes extends beyond the mango-growing season, which she does not understand. She wants a mango. She lets Annie know she wants a mango. She lets the neighbours and the sheep in the front paddock know she wants a mango.
No amount of explaining that mangoes are not available will convince the child that she cannot have a mango. She argues that they could go to the shop to buy one. But even if there was a shop that sold mangoes, they don’t have the car that day and the shop isn’t within walking distance. This is something that is beyond her comprehension. She thinks of herself and not of the wider system of which she, and mangoes, are a part.
Annie takes some frozen mango from the freezer, but the child is adamant it isn’t real mango and so does not want it. She takes it outside to feed to the sheep in the front paddock.
I am reminded of this snippet of everyday life while listening to the conference presenter – a student who wants to attend classes on campus when “I feel like it” and to attend classes online when “I’m not able to attend in person”. She doesn’t want to have to tell her tutor when she’ll attend on-campus and when she’ll attend online or when she won’t attend at all.
The other adults in the conference agree that that’s a reasonable position to take. No one mentions the wider systems of which the student is a part but which are outside of her immediate attention.
Ignore, for now, the administrative processes and the technological systems at play here. Let’s focus on the student experience.
Louise is a student at a university in a major city in Australia. In Week 3 she decides to attend the weekly 2-hour tutorial on campus. The tutorials are recorded so that students who cannot attend synchronously can have access to the material covered and the questions and provocations explored in the tutorial.
They’re also live-streamed so that students who cannot attend on campus can attend synchronously from a place of their choosing (home, work, the train, a holiday house at the beach, a cafe, a hospital room …). The university is known for providing opportunities for students to learn at any time, from anywhere, and at any place.
Louise arrives to find the teacher and three other students in the classroom. The official enrolment for the tutorial is 25. The tutor has connected to the live-streaming software allowing all enrolled students who attend synchronously to interact if they choose. Those who attend synchronously online have indicated that they like to feel part of the class, even if they’re not there physically.
The tutor has planned an interactive session where students have opportunities to actively engage with the ideas being discussed and hear others’ views. She has planned for students to work in small groups and in that way learn with and from each other. They will share their ideas, take a variety of stakeholder perspectives, formulate solutions to problems they’ve identified and justify which of those possible solutions they would recommend if they were working in a professional setting.
Nine students have joined the live-stream. They don’t have their cameras on and so show up as black boxes or initials on the screen. The two cohorts do not interact with each other, as those online keep their microphones off and while they talk when put into breakout rooms, they don’t interact with the four students in the physical room.
Louise finds the experience unsatisfying, personally, socially and intellectually. She had wanted to be part of a dynamic group of learners all seeking to explore this highly interesting and relevant area of the course. She wanted to share her ideas and was keen to hear others’ ideas. She had questions of a technical nature of the tutor but her voice sounded too loud in the near-empty room and so she kept quiet. Those who attended via the live stream interacted with each other but not with those in the physical room, and while those in the physical room contributed to the discussion and shared their ideas, the lack of a diversity of views, ideas, solutions and recommendations left her feeling flat.
The following week Louise finds she cannot attend the tutorial and listens to the recording. She finds the experience unsatisfying. She does not have the opportunity to share or discuss her ideas and is not able to hear others’ conversations as the recording cuts out when the students engage in small group conversations.
In Week 5, Louise attends via the live-stream. There are two other students attending in this mode, and two students in the physical classroom. When it comes time to join the breakout room, Louise logs off. It is an unsatisfying experience all round.
At the end of semester, she completes the unit evaluation and scores the tutor poorly. She did not have a good experience and wants the university, and her tutor, to know.
The situation is complex. Louise wants to be free to choose but is unaware, when making her choice, of some of the outcomes of that choice. She wants the choice to study when and where she wants and the capacity to make that decision on a weekly basis, unaware that choice has consequences for her experience.
There is nothing like a room full of students talking, discussing, playing around with ideas and of coming to better understand the skills and abilities they’ll need to be better financial advisers, or engaging and compassionate teachers, or architects who can play with shape and form and functionality. The feel in that room – whether it’s a virtual or physical room – can be energising and motivating.
When teachers create space for students to engage intellectually and socially and professionally, learning is enriched and empowering.
But those enriching and empowering learning experiences can’t happen in the absence of learners. Deciding not to attend has consequences that go beyond the individual.
I fear we’re headed towards an impoverished system of higher education that caters to an individualisation which sees decisions made on what individuals want (more flexibility to do things my way) without thinking about the wider consequences for learning and social and profesional interaction.
Flexibility has enormous benefits to students. It provides many with the only way of studying as they juggle the many other aspects of their lives. It is crucial for students to have options for when and how they study.
But, is there ever a point when we have to accept that just because we want a mango now, it doesn’t necessarily mean we can have one?
Is unbounded flexibility possible? And if it is, will it lead to the desired outcomes?
One final question, though perhaps for another time: Whatever happened to asynchronous learning?