The Great Debate: Engagement vs Attendance?

The fifth blog in this series has been written by Jenny Lloyd, a BILT Fellow and Senior Teaching Fellow in the School of Economics, Finance and Management. 

Today’s’ students – not so different after all?

A few weeks ago, my twin daughters returned home for a weekend from their respective universities. As they tumbled through the door, clutching suitcases and bags of washing, voicing complaints about being overworked, laughing about some mildly embarrassing incident and, of course, heading straight for the fridge, it occurred to me that despite the changes in the educational landscape, students themselves were very much the same as when I went to university.

However, it was after they’d filled the washing machine, emptied the fridge, and decided they needed to do a bit of work that the real differences began to show. They rejected the quiet bedrooms and sensible desks that I would have used and instead colonised the kitchen table with their laptops, phones, and seemingly any other device they could find. As a student, I would have worked in isolation, wrestling with library books and folders of handwritten notes; by contrast, my daughters skimmed through databases, websites and forums, annotating handouts and worksheets they’d been given. They typed directly into Google docs that formed the bases of projects with collaborators who were offering their own contributions from tens or even hundreds of miles away.

As I watched them work, I couldn’t help but reflect upon this difference between generations of learners. It occurred to me that differences between them are less about what is learned and more about how it is learned and the information landscape in which the learning takes place. True, developments in research have driven changes in the content of courses – for progress to occur that should always be the case. However, the subject matter remains little changed; Law, Medicine, Economics, Politics, Classics – students are still studying so many of the same subjects that were available to generations of students before them.

The real difference between students of my generation and those of my daughters’ is how they engage with the subjects they study. I grew up in an educational environment that was primarily dictated by the ‘transmission’ model of learning: it was the role of teachers, and later lecturers, to deliver information, and my role as student to learn it[1]. ‘Learning’ was a much more singular process and related more to outcome than process. In contrast, my daughters’ learning experience both at school and at university has been much more akin to what Lave and Wenger (1991)[2] describe as ‘engagement in actions and interaction and situated in a social world’ (p.35). Harlan, Bruce and Lupton’s (2012)[3] recognition of the pivotal role that social context plays in teenagers’ practices of gathering information, thinking about that information and ‘creating’ (ie producing the required artefact) appears particularly pertinent. Digital communities and multiple points of contact seem not only to drive the sources of information they use but to offer both normative influence as to what is acceptable/appropriate and feedback on the outcome in terms of positive or negative reinforcement.

Academically, this is a double-edged sword. The noise and the energy of the digital environment (or the kitchen) is much more akin to the world outside of the university, and I can’t help but feel that it is good that they are acclimatising to it early. The digital environment also gives students access to resources that allow them to research their work more widely, and in more depth, than previous generations. Moreover, the opportunity to collaborate and exchange ideas on online fora is potentially an invaluable way to challenge preconceptions and generate new ideas.

The flipside, however, as Harlon, Bruce and Lupton (2012) note, is that teenage learners are not necessarily drawn to ‘challenging’. Instead they tend to prefer sources that have low barriers to entry and are welcoming; something that explains why students often eschew academic journals in favour of Wikipedia and other such sources of variable quality. Moreover, online fora are effectively self-selecting ‘communities of practice’ which can often become uncritical echo chambers. This being the case, they can stifle the very rigour and intellectual debate they should be promoting.

In the end, I suppose the choices students make in the long term will come back to the results their work generates and the feedback they get. Like their parents’ generation, they will treat the marks they receive as a barometer of success or failure and, if they engage with them, the comments will act as signposts as to which sources were of value and which weren’t. The old cliché applies – the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In the case of my daughters, fortunately they seem to be doing OK. However, I must say it defeats me as to how they achieve so much with noise of the latest reality television show rattling along as a soundtrack in the background. In fact, I was about to say as much when I remembered my mother saying exactly the same thing to me when she found me sitting amongst a pile of papers and listening to the Sunday night chart show on Radio One. Perhaps things haven’t changed that much after all?

[1] Tishman, S., Jay, E. and Perkins, D.N., 1993. Teaching thinking dispositions: From transmission to enculturation. Theory into practice32(3), pp.147-153.

[2] Lave, J. and Wenger, E., 1991. Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.

[3] Harlan, Mary Ann, Bruce, Christine and Lupton, Mandy. (2012) Teen Content Creators: Experiences of Using Information to Learn, Library Trends, Vol 60, No.3, Winter, pp 569-587.

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