When modules become box sets

Asynchronous learning gives students the chance to treat modules like box sets, bingeing or skipping as they see fit. Tom Lowe wonders what this might mean for learning.

Tom Lowe is the Director at the Centre for Student Engagement at Winchester University

When I previously worked in a Student Voice role, I used to ask groups of students, in a bid to enthuse them in student engagement activities, “why did you come to university? Why did you choose to travel, or move entirely, to come to university, rather than take an online distance learning course?”

These questions would be responded to with answers that align with desires for “the full student experience”, “to be able to learn at the semester pace with their fellow students”, and to enrich their time at university with all the “activities and experiences” on offer. Alongside their commitment to study their chosen discipline at a higher level, for them, and indeed we can imagine for most students, it was the draw towards the rich buffet of experiences and activities that pulled them to physically go to university.

Organising education

Higher education in the UK is built around semesters, trimesters, or terms – eight to twelve week long blocks of learning consisting of several modules or units of weekly study. The learning is paced and the teaching enriched with dynamic in-class activities to build students’ knowledge and improve criticality, ready for the assessment and accreditation of learning through complementary activities.

We are now facing a context in which a great portion of the UK’s higher education is taking place online for Covid-19 safety reasons. However, anecdotal evidence across the sector suggests that there is low attendance for live synchronous sessions and, where it is offered, low physical attendance. This begs the question of whether students are beginning to change the learning pace and are waiting to watch several online learning events (lectures or seminars) in bulk over one or two days, rather than over the traditional prescribed 8-12 weeks. Therefore, should we be asking, “does the new mode of learning enable students to ‘box set’ their degrees?”

Binge learning?

When considering the idea of “box set” approaches to learning, it is important to recognise that this is not necessarily a negative consequence of the mass move to online learning. In fact, it could potentially work better for many students who prefer this learning experience. Most current UK higher education students are of Generation Z – described not just as the “Google Generation”, but importantly, in respect to their online consumption of content, the “Netflix Generation”. A generation with the ability to storm through two complete television series in a week, where previous generations would have had to wait to watch their favourite show over months or even years.

Perhaps Generation Z’s capacity – or fitness – to consume large amounts of information over a number of days or hours is higher than ours? Or, perhaps students are missing countless learning opportunities by bombarding themselves intensively with content over a number of days, with vital slow and considered learning experiences being missed. We too face these challenges at Winchester, so we have been mindful to complement learning online with interactivity to increase student engagement and community.

Is your module Game of Thrones or Louis Theroux?

Data analysts, learning technologists, and lecturers will know what their engagement analytics are like for their programmes. Yet there is an even greater question to consider than the “box setting” approach to units/modules of study.

Think about your own box sets – some you watch from start to finish, e.g. Game of Thrones, The Fall, War & Peace – because the story does not work unless you watch them in the order of the narrative. Can we say the same for our modules or units of study? There are some series we watch on streaming services where we watch simply random episodes which we perceive as interesting (Louis Theroux or Doctor Who, for example), so what if our students are using a similar approach with our curriculum? They may watch some content which they perceive to be relevant to their assessment specifically, and they may skip other “episodes” that look less interesting.

That idea may make some of us lecturing staff shudder, but colleagues should be aware of – and consider the implications of – these engagement behaviours. With attendance requirements lifted at many universities, the slow learning approach is no longer in our control. As we embark upon a new semester, we yet have another reason to reflect on student engagement during Covid-19.

3 responses to “When modules become box sets

  1. We are traditionally shackled to the concept of a timetable. Lectures more than anything. 60 minute. Tuesday morning. 10 weeks worth. We do this to break up the topic, seed other sessions and deliver the material to the whole cohort efficiently.

    When you move online none of that matters. ‘Timetable pedagogy’ can go to a special bin while you bring in new methods that suit the topic, the learners and the medium.

  2. There is an argument to be made, that much like the current fray in many industries in transitioning to be geared towards a younger demographic, consumer loyalty is no longer an eternal status quo, and as such many institutions are changing their marketing and products (and some even functioning) to suit the new ‘ethical’ purchasing, to keep in line with the new demands to do with eco-centricity, animal rights and discrimination against minorities.

    What is becoming increasingly obvious is that whilst HE can be a change maker in the immediacy that is the student cohort, especially one with an active society & SU base, the deeper educational cogs that drive these institutions aren’t always built around societal change and might have trouble keeping up with the demand; change in this case being held up in SMT meetings, FADC’s, academic reviews etc. Even with the best thinktanks, discussing ways of keeping recruitment up for incoming students, who make very informed decisions, taking in far more minutiae of social justice detail than before, there is still a delay in R&D which makes keeping up (at all working levels) increasingly difficult, made tenfold so with the new normal.

    When the outgoing message of openness and inclusivity, is not reflected in the course content, a cognitive dissonance is struck in the student which can spark many feelings of buyers regret, especially in the instance where the student may feel mis-sold to about an element within their degree – whether that be a change within the institution, or more recently a change made by the institution to reflect government requirement.

    Returning to this piece however, the ‘Netflix approach’ to learning in this instance, I feel, will be one of necessity rather than pure laziness, as many, especially coming from the didactic/systematic approach from tick box grade boundaries, will see the module outline on many courses as a way to get the marks they need. By performing X/Y/Z in an almost formulaic approach, this kind of learning, will be strengthened by their resolve against the cognitive dissonance if the course in its application does not live up to the expectation of the course in its outline, its rhetoric, and open day experience.

    This Netflix approach is also backed up by the recent output of pre-recorded lectures. With the ability to turn their camera off, contribute less in lectures. and having another degree of separation from their learning experience, once students realise they can log on and essentially switch off if they do not find the content stimulating (in a live session) or worse still. skip through the ‘wider reading’ part of the course, a fundamental part of the learning experience is lost, and in the digital separation we currently find ourselves in, could potentially damage their educational experience in its totality, especially for first years who are honing their craft for research, deeper study, and are left feeling like their ‘experiential’ time of university is effectively is lost to a pandemic.

  3. Although students may appreciate the”rich buffet” of the traditional, boarding school style, experience, they are increasingly less enthused by its crippling expense. Heavily discounted box set universities could easily corner the market; something that is, perhaps, already overdue.

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