There’s a mounting body of evidence that learning is taking on more of a “DIY” flavour, especially for those who are not currently registered in formal education. Students, too, increasingly, are seeking out and stitching together learning in a way that makes sense for them.

Last year Pearson’s Global Learner Survey, which gathered the views of 11,000 learners across the globe, found that 81 per cent of UK respondents believe that learning will become more DIY the older they get. 54 per cent believe YouTube will become a primary learning tool. And when asked if they had to learn something new for their career quickly which method they would use, 33 per cent said they would look for a free learning resource such as Khan Academy or Lynda.com.

These trends are popping up elsewhere, too: in a generational study we conducted in the UK in 2019 with 2,400 respondents we found that 58 per cent of “Gen Z” respondents were more likely to indicate a preference for learning through YouTube compared with 48 per cent of millennials.

What are the implications of the DIY trend?

Given that many students live their lives in a near-constant state of digital connection, it’s not surprising that they appreciate the potential of diverse learning sources. The availability of DIY sources and open learning materials can be especially useful to support the acquisition of work-related skills, or simply as personal development.

But this shift could also pose a challenge for education providers.

A potential gap is emerging. On one side there’s the academic curriculum, which offers a model of learning based on individual engagement with primarily text-based, legitimate academic sources. On the other, there’s how students are actually living their lives – in sociable learning environments, with a diverse range of multimedia sources, albeit of varying academic merit.

Canny educators know that students are using all kinds of sources to inform their learning, well beyond canonical reading lists and academic recommendations. Yet much of this DIY learning activity is invisible, because these are the sorts of sources students are actively or implicitly discouraged from citing in formal assessment.

If that gap remains invisible, there is a risk that opportunities are missed to develop the cognitive skills that students will need as graduates when they enter the workplace and have much reduced access to formal education environments. There’s also a danger that academic curricula start to feel less relevant to students’ lives, affecting their engagement with academic learning.

To begin to understand this phenomenon in more depth we designed a small-scale research project – three student focus groups, at three different universities – to investigate student engagement with learning sources that are not those recommended by academics.

The research was conducted on our behalf by the University of York Students’ Union, the University of Nottingham Students’ Union, and the University of Lincoln Students’ Union, which we hoped would help the students engaging in the research to be frank about their practice. Efforts were made in all cases to convene a diverse sample in terms of subject of study, whether students were UK or international, and demographic characteristics. The majority of participants were full-time undergraduates.

The findings support the information we’ve gathered through quantitative surveys over the last few years: that students are accessing a huge variety of DIY resources, including YouTube, Wikipedia, Khan Academy, TED talks, podcasts, online forums, such as The Student Room or subject-specific forums, open online courses, online quizzes, organisational websites such as museums, Twitter threads, Sparknotes, Facebook groups, learning apps such as Duolingo and Forest, Prezi, documentaries and podcasts, news articles, and recorded lectures and revision videos produced at universities other than their own.

In getting into a topic students reported they frequently simply Google it and follow the link trail wherever it leads. Not all DIY sources are digital; some students reported going to physical locations as part of their DIY learning, such as walking the walls of their city. If there was any doubt that students are actively engaged in DIY learning, these findings quickly put it to rest.

How are students using DIY sources?

Students reported that they consciously use these different sources for different purposes. A consistent theme was using “basic” sources to get to grips with key concepts that students felt have the status of assumed prior knowledge in the academic literature or in lectures. These sources also came into their own at exam revision time, when students wanted a memorable overview of concepts, rather than the detail of academic sources.

DIY sources help students triangulate or test their understanding of their reading of “intimidating” academic sources, and for some students whose first language was not English, DIY sources often present information in a more accessible language than that used by academics. One group articulated a view that although these sources do not deliver “core” knowledge, they scaffold learning and without them, mastering core knowledge would be much more difficult.

Non-text-based sources like videos, infographics, and podcasts were felt to offer a relief from the monotony of text or academic lectures. Students reported actively managing their attention span, switching from one type of source to another depending on their energy and interest levels. Accessibility of sources was another theme: sources that can be consumed on the go and that could be accessed easily at any time were perceived positively – especially, noted one group, if you have forgotten to do the reading and you are on your way to a tutorial.

Time-saving was also viewed positively – students did not always feel they had the luxury of time to get to grips with more complex sources, though one group did raise a concern about whether over-reliance on DIY sources could make students “lazy”.

Students appreciated being able to engage with knowledge in a way that suited them and that aligned with their perceived learning preferences. Several groups noted that these DIY sources are often designed to be engaging, even entertaining, and compared these favourably with lectures and academic literature, which students commented tend to be the opposite – although some students also had positive examples of efforts to use technologies like Slido to generate social engagement in lectures. Likewise discussion-based resources such as forums were thought to be more sociable and to bring a human element to learning that would otherwise be missing.

Students reported using DIY sources in some highly positive ways: to spark their interest, explore the context or application of knowledge, or generate fresh lines of inquiry. Opinion-based sources such as newspapers or TED talks were valued as offering an alternative way of thinking and giving students the opportunity to consider an issue from a different perspective.

But, perhaps influenced by the views of their tutors, some students were equivocal about the intrinsic value of this sort of learning. Noting that DIY sources are difficult to cite or use as the basis for assessed work, one group designated engagement with DIY sources “pseudo work”, describing it as a break from studying because it generates insight that is not perceived as useful for the degree. These students had apparently not considered that through engaging in DIY learning they are developing fine judgement skills, and exercising habits of independent thinking, which arguably is exactly what we hope graduates will gain from their university experience.

What guidance are students receiving about DIY sources?

Students in all the groups reported that they are well aware that the content of DIY sources may not be wholly reliable. Finding sources directly relevant to the topic at hand could sometimes be difficult, and a lack of depth in sources was also noted as a weakness. Some sources do not provide all their content for free – and students are loathe to pay.

In one group, some students reported they make very little use of DIY sources, because they do not believe they are academically credible for their subject. There was debate about the basis for credibility – some students in one group thought YouTube might be credible because of its universality, while others thought TED talks might be more credible because they are curated and notionally “expert”.

Students also reported a “stigma” around the use of these sources in academic culture. Many agreed that making reference to a DIY source such as YouTube video in assessed work would be frowned upon, without being able to recall a time that this had explicitly been stated. Others reported that academics had explicitly warned students not to use online sources or student-generated sources. Some reported going to some lengths to find a credible source to allow them to express an idea they had picked up from a DIY source.

There was not, however, a strong sense that students wanted additional guidance and information on which DIY sources to use or how to engage with them. Though one group thought there might be value in more active academic engagement with the DIY learning landscape, another group felt this would negate the value of DIY learning. They enjoyed the freedom DIY sources gave them to pursue independent lines of inquiry and exercise their own judgement, though they did think there could be additional support for exercising judgements about the credibility and value of different sources.

No matter how carefully crafted the curriculum, students will inevitably go off-piste. And, arguably, we want them to. A student who had only dutifully followed the set texts and recommended reading could hardly make a meaningful claim to be an independent learner. When, as graduates, students leave formal learning and begin to build careers, their ability to draw on and make meaning from these DIY sources will be an important resource to help them thrive in the modern workplace, indicating curiosity, adaptability, and personal efficacy.

At their best, DIY sources apparently are helping bring learning to life and give students a rounded appreciation of their subject areas, perhaps even a sense of a wider purpose for their study. In a world saturated with opportunities to consume different kinds of content, it can be tempting for educators to try to draw distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate sources of knowledge on students’ behalf. But maybe what’s really needed if students are to learn throughout their lives is to equip them with the skills to make those judgements themselves.

This article is published in association with Pearson, and is the first in a series on the DIY learning trend and its implications for education providers and policymakers. We’ll be discussing these findings with students from each of the participating institutions at the Secret Life of Students event later this week.

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