For £9,000, students expect their classes to go digital

Does my £9,000 get me a tablet? BillyONeal

Students in the UK are now paying annual fees of up to £9,000 – and they expect more for their money. This is a radical change from the situation a couple of decades ago when student grants provided the financial support to attend university.

How can universities meet new students’ needs and expectations? The answer lies in technology.

Individual students are now responsible for the majority of tuition costs of their course. But the structure of student loans and support mechanisms also mean that university is in some ways a more viable option now, and 2014 has seen a recovery in student applications.

Prior to 1998, the government paid the full cost of teaching to institutions. This direct funding was reduced when tuition fees were introduced, and has gone down in proportion to the increase in tuition fees.

Now the £9,000 fees that students pay more closely reflects the actual cost of delivering a degree in many subjects. This means the income provided by the new tuition fee regime does not actually give a big increase to universities.

Higher expectations

Many commentators believe this fee change will lead to a shift away from students as learners to students as consumers, with corresponding expectations for the product, level of service and support provided.

While the price of providing study has not radically changed, despite increasing requirements for technology and other services, it is now very clear to students what education really costs.

In my recent report on Technology Enhanced Learning for flexible pedagogy, I show how technology can provide personalised and flexible responses to students to supplement and in some cases replace more traditional teaching.

Flexible learning

Technology Enhanced Learning, or eLearning, refers to the use of computer technology, such as mobile devices like smart phones or tablet computers, to support students. The learning resources may be running on the users’ device, or they may be remote, such as on a server accessed over the internet. The course may be physically nearby, provided on a campus, or at a distance.

There are a number of potential benefits to eLearning, both to those providing it, and to those using it. For the student, the benefits can come in flexibility. They can choose where, when and what to study.

Flexibility offers opportunities, but it also has the potential to make things difficult to manage for the institutions. One example would be in allowing students to choose their method of assessment - it increases the practical management aspects in how you arrange submissions, whilst making it more complex to demonstrate that students’ assessments are equivalent.

A university course is often typified by large numbers of students, which can limit opportunities for discussion, assistance and personal experience. Adaptive and intelligent technology offers ways to supplement and support this with personalised learning, where the system helps students by directing them to appropriate material, offering different approaches to the same fundamental concepts.

An example of this could be in having two sorts of presentation of material in a maths class. One could be a lecture (or video clip) with someone explaining the concept, such as linear dependence of variables, the other an interactive example where the student can alter values and see the impact in a live graph.

Technology can help the lecturer or teacher to take more of a role in managing and directing a student’s learning, with traditional lectures and seminars complementing the technology, and giving the student a rewarding and successful experience.

The costs of providing this are significant, and can be considered under two areas: first, the cost of the infrastructure, with networks, computer devices, software and all the related support. The second area is that of the more hidden costs of staff time – in training, development and implementation of new approaches.

For course providers, eLearning can also offer new opportunities and challenges. The rise of Massive Open On-line Courses (MOOCs) – large scale courses that people can study online for free – have been making the news, but views vary on how much impact they will have on traditional universities.

Some foretell the closure of institutions, others that MOOCs are a passing fad. While somewhere between the two is likely, theses courses show how technology can provide a model for a mix of traditional and computer-based education, known as blended learning.

This can end up taking more time, as the relative efficiency of a lecture gets replaced with multiple online discussions. An interesting exercise would be to analyse the cost of implementing a blended learning programme – something that universities do not always consider when adopting new approaches.