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.
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?”
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.