Thinking critically about the student digital experience

We’ve been researching the student and teacher digital experience at Navitas now for almost a decade, and during that time have regularly compared our own internal findings with those of other organisations and institutions around the world. Sometimes this benchmarking process gives us confirmation that our findings align with other studies, and at other times it presents opportunities to re-think and refresh our own approaches.

Some of our team had the opportunity recently to attend a seminar delivered by Helen Beetham at the Sydney University Centre for Research on Learning and Innovation (CRLI). Helen is an independent researcher, writer and adviser on issues in digital learning, and as a long-standing consultant to Jisc (UK), has led national programmes and written influential reports on topics such as the digital curriculum in higher education, digital literacy and digital organisations.

The seminar shared some results and implications of a recent large-scale survey on student digital experience, focussing in particular on what 50,000+ free-text responses revealed about these students’ critical assessment of digital learning and teaching. The summary notes below share some brief highlights from the seminar, and reflect on some implications for our own approaches to understanding the student and teacher digital experience.

Developing digital literacies

Helen began with a review of definitions and theory around digital literacies, acknowledging that the term can be understood in many different ways. In this research, ‘digital literacies’ are considered to be ‘those capabilities that allow an individual to thrive (live, work, learn) in a digital society’. Digital literacies (or skills, as students prefer to call them) are thought of as ‘foundational’, socially and culturally situated, even a cultural entitlement, and should be personal and continuously developed, rather than a base skill set to be acquired at a single point in time.

She noted that digital literacies have become both a global agenda (a human right, related to civic and economic participation and a measure of educational outcomes) as well as looming large on the higher education agenda, influencing funding, curriculum and more. Despite this, the evidence underpinning many of these priorities is still lacking, and can use sometimes ‘blunt’ measures which fall short of providing clear insight – particularly at the qualitative, deeper level.

Researching the student digital experience

As Helen explored the research findings in the main section of her presentation, she noted that good research looks to understand attitudes, experiences and meanings, and goes beyond popular approaches such as CX (customer experience), UX (user experience) and simple survey techniques. Deeper, foundational research reveals insights that suggest, for example, that despite increasing device ownership (95% of surveyed students owned and used their own laptops for study), not all students thrive equally in the digital age. The digital divide may be narrowing in some ways, but is also deepening, with some students finding it harder to transfer learnings from personal use to study contexts. Echoes of the ‘digital natives’ conversation in particular hides contradictions in student behaviour which simplify our understanding.

We also need to differentiate ‘transactional’ from ‘transformational’ use of technology when talking about its use in learning. This is something which we have seen very clearly in our Navitas surveys and qualitative research, where students are more easily able to discern and articulate ‘transactional’ use of technology (“Can I access it?”; “Did it work?”; “What did I use it for?”). It is much more difficult, especially in a survey, but even in a longer exploratory discussion, to comment on more hidden ‘transformational’ use of technology such as connecting, sharing, creating, and personal empowerment. This self-awareness and reflection takes longer to observe and understand, and may therefore go unreported without skilled analysis.

Helen then summarised some highlights from the 2018 Jisc digital experience survey in Australia and New Zealand, which gathered 21,095 responses from 12 universities following an initial pilot in the UK. The research is part of a three-year project to understand students’ expectations and experiences of digital technology in their learning and included 23 questions across four themes: the digital lives of learners; digital in the university; digital at course level, and student attitudes to digital. Click on the image below to access the 2018 Jisc digital experience survey:

The findings are carefully analysed and echo a number of insights from our own internal research, for example in the high student ownership of smartphones and laptops, and student expectations about using their own devices in their learning. Likewise, students were disappointed when ‘basics’ such as WiFi and campus/classroom technology were not reliable, and often turn to their peers for assistance as well as more formal support.

Don’t put everything online!

Helen’s focus on the insights from free-text comments took the research deeper, indicating the beginnings of a more ‘evolved critique’ from students on technology. These comments revealed the value students still place on teaching quality and the human presence in learning, aptly illustrated by one student’s pointed comment: “Don’t let our lecturers use the phrase ‘blended learning’ as an excuse to leave the room”. This gave rise to discussion of the lecture ‘attendance paradox’: on the one hand, students expect lecture recordings to be available and close to the ‘real’ experience. On the other hand, this can lead to a drop-off in attendance and a sense of disconnection with the broader student (and teacher) community. Helen noted that some student cohorts are becoming aware of contradictions like this in their digital behaviours, and encouraged more open dialogue and involvement with our student communities to promote further analysis.

Getting closer to students

Helen concluded with some examples of the many ways we can and should be connecting with students to continue our shared understanding of digital literacies. She noted initiatives that empower students to be change agents, co-researchers, co-learners (with teachers) and co-creators in this arena, sharing critical thinking on the use of technology and questioning the ends as well as the means – particularly important in popular topics such as learning analytics and data privacy.

At Navitas, we continue our journey to better understand our students’ and teachers’ experience with technology in many different ways, from Digital Customer Experience projects bringing diverse areas of our organisation together to our annual teacher and student technology surveys. We look forward to sharing the results of the 2019 Teacher Technology Survey which is currently in the field across our global network of colleges and business units – stay tuned for further debate and discussion!