Books, Digital First, and positive learning experiences

Lawrence Bilton

Research student – Department of Physical Sciences

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The Open University (OU) has a long-standing presence in the world of distance education. The emerging prominence of the internet has made it inevitable that as an institution it would, or at least should, pave new ways in developing innovative teaching and access.

In some ways it has done this, and has a presence online with its Virtual Learning Environment for formal students, and platforms such as OpenLearn and now FutureLearn for informal students. The latter provides a free, structured way to study from courses provided by a variety of the world’s leading Universities and academics, including the OU.

I have been lucky in experiencing all sides of study, being an OU undergraduate student and now an OU postgraduate student, along with studying FutureLearn MOOCs. I was also one of the facilitators on the first presentation of ‘In the night sky: Orion’ on FutureLearn. In this article I am going to share my personal views on the concept of ‘Digital First’, drawing on from these different experiences, and engaging with the OU’s central academic staff and fellow students along the way.

Many students who study at the OU are oblivious to the fact there is a physical campus with real working academics along with managerial, administrative and support staff. As a result most start to ‘distance’ themselves from the fact it is just like any other university, although this thinking is not exclusive to the students; academics are culprits of this as well and they work on the campus. This is even truer now with the demise of the 10-credit residential modules, excluding the lucky Engineering students.

So now a gap needs to be filled with that precious contact with academics. Attending a traditional university you see your lecturers, personal tutor and even the programme director in person. You know the people who design your degree content and teach it to you. I don’t feel this is the case with the OU. The module team/course designers need to be there, more prominently advertised at the ‘front of house’ so the students are familiar with who their virtual lecturers are. Academic teams need to be more visible via introductory pages on module websites at least, with video introductions to the content and the materials. This welcome helps calm the anxiety of students, but also helps them to feel a part of a real university community, as well as part of the academic journey they are about to embark on.

The current module website layout is not engaging nor encourages any student to engage and can be seen as a rather boring introduction to study, and this is where the OU’s FutureLearn MOOCs can set a good example on the positive ideals from a ‘Digital First’ perspective. Each MOOC has a structured layout of the teaching content into numbered steps, i.e. it opens with an introductory page welcoming the learner, sometimes with a video from the academics involved in producing the MOOC. With this layout learners know what they’re meant to be studying at a given time for each step and therefore each week. They also see the academics and hear them talk about their subject with videos interspaced between steps containing written text. Everything is seamless and integrated – it flows. Comments can be made on each step and as a result learners are a lot more enthusiastic asking the academics and facilitators questions. This is where the OU could learn from FutureLearn when it comes to its online side of module delivery.

The Online Student Experience Project (OSEP) is beginning a revamp of OU module websites, and it will be interesting to see if there could be the carry through of what our informal students experience to their formal experiences.

The opinions of the student should be paramount in any university, and I engaged with many of my fellow learners while I was studying for my undergraduate degree. The common consensus between us was that print media is valued and well loved by everyone, and while interactive and seamless content is going to be a brilliant step forward in terms of pedagogical progress nothing beats learning from a book.

The most common criticism of a fully online offering is the need to be constantly connected to the internet. Where that it isn’t possible, people working with computers all day at their place of work don’t want to continue to burn their retinas in order to study. They like to have a permanent reference book that doesn’t ‘disappear’, one that they can scribble notes all over. All of which is perfectly valid.

With the trebling of fees due to the removal of government subsidy, although the production of the digital content is timely and costly the student struggles to see the value in this. They care about their ability to progress, which they see as being hindered by their own university. Now, the student does bear more burden of the module cost, and the slow removal of print media makes them no longer feel like they have anything physical to show for their hours of study and commitment, aside from their degree certificate after a long and gruelling period.

This is where the learning experience matters more than anything. If the student has a positive learning experience, if they feel like they are being well supported, and are provided with quality learning materials, then thought of the cost dissipates as they think remember positive experience.

Of course access to the latest information and research can only be done digitally. As a result you cannot be a student in the modern world without the ability to use a computer and access the internet. Likewise, an academic cannot sufficiently write and disseminate their research without the immediate accessibility of the internet. This is most likely where striking the balance between the digital and print worlds would best suit the student, where print media would form the basis of the teaching, accompanied by an intuitive module website based on the FutureLearn step-by-step model. Easy to navigate sections helping to invigorate learning through a ‘Digital First’ initiative. As well as this you could have the latest relevant research as well as listing any errata, and of course the normal forums you see on a module website hopefully with more enthusiastic, less shy and engaging students that will leave with a positive learning experience.

The FutureLearn MOOC model demonstrates how the digital content can be delivered better, and the OU has shown how distance teaching can be mastered. So let’s not lose it now and forget the students who make our university.