October 22, 2014

Key characteristics of learners in a digital age and their influence on the design of teaching and learning

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cultural diversity 2

In my previous post, I outlined some key components of learning environments, which will form part of Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ Here is one model of a learning environment that I provided in my previous post.

Figure 5.1 A learning environment from the perspective of an instructor

Figure 5.1 A learning environment from the perspective of an instructor

Learner characteristics

Here I want to discuss one key component of a learning environment, learner characteristics, and in particular focus on the characteristics of learners that are particularly relevant for designing teaching and learning in a digital age.

Probably nothing more reflects changes to teaching in a digital age than the change in learner characteristics.

Learner characteristics 2

Increased diversity

I noted in Chapter 1 (Section 1.4) that in developed countries such as Canada, public ‘post-secondary institutions are expected to represent the same kind of socio-economic and cultural diversity as in society at large, rather than being institutions reserved for an elite minority.’ In an age where economic development is tightly associated with higher levels of education, the goal now is to bring as many students as possible to the standards required, rather than focus on just the needs of the most able students. This means finding ways of helping a very wide range of students with very different levels of ability and/or prior knowledge to succeed. One size clearly does not fit all today. Dealing with an increasingly diverse student population is perhaps the greatest of all challenges then that teachers and instructors face in a digital age, particularly but not exclusively at a post-secondary level.  This is not something for which instructors primarily qualified in subject matter expertise are well prepared. 

Later in the book I will demonstrate that a combination of good design and an appropriate use of technology will greatly facilitate the personalization of learning, allowing for instance for different students to work at different speeds, and to focus learning on students’ specific interests and needs, thus ensuring engagement and motivation for a diverse range of students. However, the first and perhaps most important step is for instructors to know their students, and in particular, to identify from the vast range of information regarding students and their differences, which are the most important for the design of teaching and learning in a digital age.

The work and home context

Two factors make the work and home context an important consideration in the design of teaching and learning: students are increasingly working while studying (about half of all Canadian post-secondary students also work, and those that do work average 16 hours a week – Marshall, 2011); and the age range of students continues to spread, with the average age of students slowly increasing (at the University of British Columbia, the average age of undergraduates is 20, but more than one third of all their students are over 24 years old. The mean age for graduate students in 2014 was 31 – UBC Vancouver Fact Sheet, 2014.)

There are several reasons for the average age of students increasing, at least in North America:

  • students are taking longer to graduate (partly because they tend to take a smaller study load when working)
  • increasing numbers of students are going on to grad school
  • more students are coming back for additional courses and programs after graduating (lifelong learners), mainly for economic reasons.

What partly or fully employed students, or students with families, are increasingly requiring is more flexibility in their studying, and especially avoiding long commutes between home, work and college. Thus this type of student is looking increasingly to hybrid or fully online courses, and for smaller modules, certificates or programs that they can fit around their work and family life.

Learners’ goals

Understanding the motivation of students and what they expect to get out of a course or program should also influence the design of a course or program. For academic learning, it is often necessary to find ways to move students whose approach to learning is initially driven by extrinsic rewards such as grades or qualifications to an approach that engages and motivates students in the subject matter itself.

Potential students already with a post-secondary qualification and a good job may not want to work through a pre-determined set of courses but may want just specific areas of content from existing courses, tailored to meet their needs (for instance, on demand and delivered online).

Thus it is important to have some kind of knowledge or understanding of why learners are likely to take your course or program, and what they are hoping to get out of it.

Prior knowledge or skills

Future learning often depends on students having prior knowledge or an ability to do things at a certain level. Teachers aim to bridge the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help, what Vygotsky (1978) termed the zone of proximal development. If the difficulty level of the teaching is aimed too far beyond the capability or prior knowledge and skills of a learner, then learning fails to occur.

However, the more diverse the students in a program, the more diverse the knowledge and skill levels they are likely to bring with them. Indeed, lifelong learners, or new immigrants repeating a subject because their foreign qualifications are not recognised, may bring specialist or advanced knowledge that can be drawn on to enrich the learning experience for everyone. Other students may not have the same basic knowledge as others in a course and will need more help. In such a context it is important to design the learning experience so that it is flexible enough to accommodate students with a wide range of prior knowledge and skills.

Digital natives

Most students now have grown up with digital technologies such as mobile phones, tablets and social media, including Facebook, Twitter, blogs and wikis.  Prensky (2010) and others (e.g. Tapscott, 2008) argue that not only are such students more proficient in using such technologies than those who had to learn how to use such technologies as adults (termed ‘digital immigrants’ by Prensky), but that they also think differently (Tapscott, 2008).

Jones and Shao (2011) have made a thorough review of the literature on this topic, and found the following:

  • the terms Net Generation and Digital Native do not capture the processes of change that are taking place [which are more complex]; the evidence indicates that young students do not form a generational cohort and they do not express consistent or generationally organised demands..
  • students do not naturally make extensive use [for study purposesof many of the most discussed new technologies such as Blogs, Wikis and 3D Virtual Worlds ….
  • the gap between students and their teachers is not fixed, nor is the gulf so large that it cannot be bridged.
  • students who are required to use these technologies in their courses are unlikely to reject them and low use does not imply that they are inappropriate for educational use. 
  • the development of university infrastructures, such as new kinds of learning environments ….should be choices about the kinds of provision that the university wishes to make and not a response to general statements about what a new generation of students are demanding

It is particularly important to understand that students themselves vary a great deal in their use of social media and new technologies, that their use is largely driven by social and personal demands, and their use of digital technologies does not naturally flow across into educational use. They will use new technologies and social media for learning though where instructors make a good case for it and when students can see that the use of digital media will directly help them in their studies. For this to happen though deliberate design choices are required on the part of the instructor.

In conclusion

With an increasingly diverse student population, one size will not fit all. We need to develop flexible approaches to teaching and learning that can accommodate and support this diversity. The aim is to enable as many students as possible to succeed, not just to identify the best and brightest for grad school. At the same time, the student demographic in most countries is rapidly changing. The more we understand our students – who they are, what they want, how they live – the better placed we are to design a learning environment that fits their needs.

The work and home context, learners’ goals, and students’ prior knowledge and skills (including their competence with digital media) are some of the critical factors that should influence the design of teaching. For some instructors, other characteristics of learners, such as learning styles, gender differences or cultural background, may be more important, depending on the context. Whatever the context, good design in teaching requires good information about the learners we are going to teach, and in particular good design needs to address the increasing diversity of our students.

Over to you

As always, your comments and feedback on this are critical. In particular:

  1. Are these the main characteristics of learners that you would consider important to identify when designing teaching for a digital age? What would you have added?
  2. What do you see as the main implications for the design of teaching and learning of these changing student characteristics?
  3. How feasible is it to get this information? How would or do you go about it?

Next up

I will be discussing how we need to look differently in a digital age at teaching content and skills.

Comments

  1. Linda Castañeda says:

    Thank you for the post.
    Just one comment. Personally, after tons of literature about the “nature” of our students and their use of the technologies, I prefer the approach of David White (and his team) speaking about Visitors and Residents (the current research they are developing is here http://oclc.org/research/activities/vandr.html).
    If we think on learners in digital age as online residents, the consequences about how the technology has a role on their lives, their learning experiences and our teaching approaches, are very different than if we understand that the existence of the technology o the age of the users are the crucial factors.
    Nothing else. Just my two cents to the discussion, if there.

    Thanks again

    Linda

  2. You had me until you went with the digital natives thing. Prensky himself backtracked on that term.

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