March 24, 2017

Students as a criterion for media selection in online learning

The Malaysian Ministry of Education announced that it will enable students to bring handphones to schools under strict guidelines Image: © NewStraightsTimes, 2015

The Malaysian Ministry of Education announced in 2012 that it will enable students to bring handphones to schools under strict guidelines
Image: © NewStraightsTimes, 2012

Decisions are being made every day by government, institutions, teachers and students about technology use in education. How are these decisions made? What criteria are used?

In my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I am suggesting using the SECTIONS model for media selection based on an examination of the following criteria:

  • tudents
  • E ase of use
  • osts
  • eaching functions
  • I nteraction
  • rganisational issues and Open-ness
  • etworking and Novelty
  • peed and Security.

Here is my first draft on questions about students and their needs:

At least three issues related to students need to be considered when choosing media and technology:

  • student demographics;
  • access; and
  • differences in how students learn.

Student demographics

One of the fundamental changes resulting from mass higher education is that university and college teachers must now teach an increasingly diverse range of students. This increasing diversity of students presents major challenges for post-secondary teachers. It requires that courses should be developed with a wide variety of approaches and ways to learn if all students in the course are to be taught well.

In particular, it is important to be clear about the needs of the target group. First and second year students straight from high school are likely to require more support and help studying at a university or college level. They are likely to be less independent as learners, and therefore it may be dangerous to expect them to be able to study entirely through the use of technology. However, technology may be useful as a support for classroom teaching, especially if it provides an alternative approach to learning from the face-to-face teaching, and is gradually introduced, to prepare them for more independent study later in a program.

On the other hand, for students who have already been through higher education as a campus student, but are now in the workforce, a program delivered entirely by technology at a distance is likely to be attractive. Such students will have already developed successful study skills, will have their own community and family life, and will welcome the flexibility of studying this way.

Third and fourth year undergraduate students may appreciate a mix of classroom-based and online study or even one or two fully online courses, especially if some of their face-to-face classes are closed to further enrolments, or if students are working part-time to help cover some of the costs of being at college.

Lastly, within any single class or group of learners, there will be a wide range of differences in prior knowledge, language skills, and preferred study styles. The intelligent use of media and technology can help accommodate these differences. This will be discussed further below (Section 9.2.3).


Of all the criteria in determining choice of technology, this is perhaps the most discriminating. No matter how powerful in educational terms a particular medium or technology may be, if students cannot access it in a convenient and affordable manner they cannot learn from it. Thus you may believe that video streaming is the best way to get your great lectures to students off campus, but if they do not have Internet access at home, or if it takes four hours to download, then forget it. (This is a particular weakness in the argument for using xMOOCs in developing countries. Even if potential learners have Internet or mobile phone access, which 5 billion still don’t, it often costs a day’s wages to download a single YouTube video – see Marron, Missen and Greenberg, 2014).

If you are intending to use computers, tablets or mobile phones for students, then you need answers to a number of questions.

  • What is your or your department’s policy with regard to students’ access to a computer, tablets or mobile phones?
  • Can they use any device or is there a limited list of devices that the institution will support?
  • Is the medium or software you are using compatible with all makes of mobile phones?
  • Is the network adequate to support any extra students your class might add?
  • Who else in the institution needs to know that you are requiring students to use particular devices?

If students are expected to provide their own devices (which increasingly makes sense),

  • what kind of device do they need: one at home with Internet access or a portable that they can bring on to campus – or one that can be used both at home and on campus?
  • What kind of applications will they need to run on their device(s) for study purposes?
  • Will they be able to use the same device(s) across all courses, or will they need different software/apps and devices for different courses?
  • What software skills will students need?
  • Will they need to know how to use a particular software before taking a course, or will they be taught this during the course?

Students (as well as the instructor) need to know the answers to these questions before they enrol in a course or program. In order to answer these questions, you and your department must know what students will use their devices for. There is no point in requiring students to go to the expense of purchasing a laptop computer if the work they are required to do on it is optional or trivial. This means some advance planning on your part.

  • What are the educational advantages that you see in student use of a particular device?
  • What will students need to do on the device in your course?
  • Is it really essential for them to use a device in these ways, or could they easily manage without the device?
  • What technology skills will they need, and will most students have these skills?
  • If students do not have the skills, would it still be worth their learning them, and will there be time set aside in the course for them to learn these skills?

It will really help if your institution has good policies in place for student technology access (see Section 9.7 below). If the institution doesn’t have clear policies or infrastructure for supporting the technologies you want to use, then your job is going to be a lot harder.

The answer to the question of access and the choice of technology will also depend somewhat on the mandate of the institution and your personal educational goals. For instance, highly selective universities can require students to use particular devices, and can help the relatively few students who have financial difficulties in purchasing and using specified devices. If though the mandate of the institution is to reach learners denied access to conventional institutions, equity groups, the unemployed, the working poor, or workers needing up-grading or more advanced education and training, then it becomes critical to find out what technology they have access to or are willing to use.

For instance, the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal conducted a study on how best to improve the communication of health information and education for ‘hard to reach’ patients. These were defined as patients or clients with low levels of literacy, those who face language and cultural barriers, and those who have difficulties processing information because of physical or cognitive disabilities. The study found that most of these patients do not, and do not want to, use computers, even though many Canadian hospitals and health care centers are increasingly relying on computer-mediated information systems for patients (Centre for Literacy, 2001). If an institution’s policy is open access to anyone who wants to take its courses, the availability of equipment already in the home (usually purchased for entertainment purposes) becomes of paramount importance.

If students do not already have personal access to specific technologies, alternatives are to provide the necessary equipment on campus, or through access at local community centres or the workplace. However, the use of local centres may limit another important factor with regard to access, and that is flexibility. If students have to travel to a local centre, or if the centre is open only at certain times, then this will reduce flexibility and increase the barriers to learning. Also, costs can escalate rapidly if the institution has to provide hardware and software for students.

Another important factor to consider is access for student with disabilities. This may mean providing textual or audio options for deaf and visually impaired students respectively. Fortunately there are now well established practices and standards under the general heading of Universal Design standards. Universal Design is defined as follows:

Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, refers to the deliberate design of instruction to meet the needs of a diverse mix of learners. Universally designed courses attempt to meet all learners’ needs by incorporating multiple means of imparting information and flexible methods of assessing learning. UDL also includes multiple means of engaging or tapping into learners’ interests. Universally designed courses are not designed with any one particular group of students with a disability in mind, but rather are designed to address the learning needs of a wide-ranging group.

Brokop, F. (2008)

Most institutions with a centre for supporting teaching and learning will be able to provide assistance to faculty to ensure the course meets universal design standards.  A good guide is available here.

Student differences with respect to learning with technologies

It may seem obvious that different students will have different preferences for different kinds of technology or media. The design of teaching would cater for these differences. Thus if students are ‘visual’ learners, they would be provided with diagrams and illustrations. If they are auditory learners, they will prefer lectures and podcasts. It might appear then that identifying dominant learning styles should then provide strong criteria for media and technology selection. However, it is not as simple as that.

McLoughlin (1999), in a thoughtful review of the implications of the research literature on learning styles for the design of instructional material, concluded that instruction could be designed to accommodate differences in both cognitive-perceptual learning styles and Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle. In a study of new intakes conducted over several years at the University of Missouri-Columbia, using the Myers-Briggs inventory, Schroeder (1993) found that new students think concretely, and are uncomfortable with abstract ideas and ambiguity.

However, a major function of a university education is to develop skills of abstract thinking, and to help students deal with complexity and uncertainty. Perry (1984) found that learning in higher education is a developmental process. It is not surprising then that many students enter college or university without such ‘academic’ skills. Indeed, there are major problems in trying to apply learning styles and other methods of classifying learner differences to media and technology selection and use. Laurillard (2001) makes the point that looking at learning styles in the abstract is not helpful. Learning has to be looked at in context. Thinking skills in one subject area do not necessarily transfer well to another subject area. There are ways of thinking that are specific to different subject areas. Thus logical-rational thinkers in science do not necessarily make thoughtful husbands, or good literary critics.

Part of a university education is to understand and possibly challenge predominant modes of thinking in a subject area. While learner-centered teaching is important, students need to understand the inherent logic, standards, and values of a subject area. They also need to be challenged, and encouraged to think outside the box. This may clash with their preferred learning style. Indeed, the research on the effectiveness of matching instructional method to learning styles is at best equivocal. For instance, Dziuban et al. (2000), at the University of Central Florida, applied Long’s reactive behavior analysis of learning styles to students in both face-to-face classes and Web-based online classes. They found that learning style does not appear to be a predictor of who withdraws from online courses, nor were independent learners likely to do better online than other kinds of learners.

The limitations of learning styles as a guide to designing courses does not mean we should ignore student differences, and we should certainly start from where the student is. In particular, at a university level we need strategies to gradually move students from concrete learning based on personal experience to abstract, reflective learning that can then be applied to new contexts and situations. We shall see in Section 9.5 that technology can be particularly helpful for that.

Thus when designing courses, it is important to offer a range of options for student learning within the same course. One way to do this is to make sure that a course is well structured, with relevant ‘core’ information easily available to all students, but also to make sure that there are opportunities for students to seek out new or different content. This content should be available in a variety of media such as text, diagrams, and video, with concrete examples explicitly related to underlying principles. We shall see in Chapter 10 that the increasing availability of open educational resources makes the provision of this ‘richness’ of possible content much more viable.

Similarly, technology enables a range of learner activities to be made available, such as researching readings on the Web, online discussion forums, synchronous presentations, assessment through e-portfolios, and online group work. The range of activities increases the likelihood that a variety of learner preferences are being met, and also encourages learners to involve themselves in activities and approaches to learning where they may initially feel less comfortable. Such approaches to design are more likely to be effective than courses in multiple versions developed to meet different learning styles. In any case developing multiple versions of courses for different styles of learner is likely to be impractical in most cases. So avoid trying to match different media to different learning styles but instead ensure that students have a wide range of media (text, audio, video, computing) within a course or program.

Lastly, one should be careful in the assumptions made about student preferences for learning through digital technologies. On the one hand, technology ‘boosters’ such as Mark Prensky and Don Tapscott argue that today’s ‘digital natives’ are different from previous generations of students. They argue that todays students live within a networked digital universe and therefore expect their learning also to be all digitally networked. It is also true that professors in particular tend to underestimate students’ access to advanced technologies (professors are often late adopters of new technology), so you should always try to find up-to-date information on what devices and technologies students are currently using, if you can.

On the other hand, it is also dangerous to assume that all students are highly ‘digital literate’ and are demanding that new technologies should be used in teaching. Jones and Shao (2011) conducted a thorough review of the literature on ‘digital natives’, with over 200 appropriate references, including surveys of relevant publications from countries in Europe, Asia, North America, Australia and South Africa. They concluded that:

  • students vary widely in their use and knowledge of digital media
  • the gap between students and their teachers in terms of digital literacy is not fixed, nor is the gulf so large that it cannot be bridged
  • there is little evidence that students enter university with demands for new technologies that teachers and universities cannot meet;
  • students will respond positively to changes in teaching and learning strategies that include the use of new technologies that are well conceived, well explained and properly embedded in courses and degree programmes. However there is no evidence of a pent-up demand amongst students for changes in pedagogy or of a demand for greater collaboration;
  • the development of university infrastructure, technology policies and teaching objectives 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;
  • the evidence indicates that young students do not form a generational cohort and they do not express consistent or generationally organised demands.

Graduating students that have been interviewed about learning technologies at the University of British Columbia made it clear that they will be happy to use technology for learning so long as it contributes to their success (in the words of one student, ‘if it will get me better grades’) but the students also made it clear that it was the instructor’s responsibility to decide what technology was best for their studies.

It is also important to pay attention to what Jones and Shao are not saying. They are not saying that social media, personal learning environments, or collaborative learning are inappropriate, nor that the needs of students and the workforce are unchanging or unimportant, but the use of these tools or approaches should be driven by a holistic look at the needs of all students, the needs of the subject area, and the learning goals relevant to a digital age, and not by an erroneous view of what a particular generation of students are demanding.

In summary, one great advantage of the intelligent application of technology to teaching is that it provides opportunities for students to learn in a variety of ways, thus adapting the teaching more easily to student differences. Thus, the first step in media selection is to know your students, their similarities and differences, what technologies they already have access to, and what digital skills they already possess or lack that may be relevant for your courses. This is likely to require the use of a wide range of media within the teaching.


Brokop, F. (2008) Accessibility to E-Learning for Persons With Disabilities: Strategies, Guidelines, and Standards Edmonton AB: NorQuest College/eCampus Alberta

Centre for Literacy of Québec (2001) Needs assessment of the health education and information needs of hard-to-reach patients Montréal: Centre for Literacy of Québec

Dziuban, C. et al. (2000) Reactive behavior patterns go online  The Journal of Staff, Program and Organizational Development, Vol. 17, No.3

Jones, C. and Shao, B. (2011) The Net Generation and Digital Natives: Implications for Higher Education Milton Keynes: Open University/Higher Education Academy

Kolb. D. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall

Laurillard, D. (2001) Rethinking University Teaching: A Conversational Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Marron, D. Missen, C. and Greenberg, J. (2014) “Lo-Fi to Hi-Fi”: A New Way of Conceptualizing Metadata in Underserved Areas with the eGranary Digital Library Austin TX: International Conference on Dublin Core and Metadata Applications

McCoughlin, C. (1999) The implictions of the research literature on learning styles for the design of instructional material Australian Journal of Educational Technology, Vol. 15, No. 3

Perry, W. (1970) Forms of intellectual development and ethical development in the college years: a scheme New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston

Prensky, M. (2001) ‘Digital natives, Digital Immigrants’ On the Horizon Vol. 9, No. 5

Schroeder, C. (1993) New students – new learning styles, Change, Sept.-Oct


As always, feedback will be much appreciated. In particular:

  1. It seems obvious that students should be the first consideration in any educational decision. However, apart from student access to technology, student differences do not seem to me to be a very strong determinant of media choice, because there is so much variability in their needs. Do you agree?
  2. Linked to this, where do you stand on learning styles and media selection? You see I have been cautious about this and have fallen back on a general statement of ensuring a wide mix of media within a course. What are your views on this?
  3. One of the great benefits of the Internet is that it enables/includes nearly all media (text, audio, video, computing) – so do we really need a decision model? If we do, why?
  4. Any other comments, suggestions about appropriate graphics or video to illustrate this section, or examples of how you make decisions about choice of media, will be welcomed.


Ease of use and costs as criteria.

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