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Raising the Bar: An interview with Carol Russell

By Ryan Tracey / May 2014

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Dr. Carol Russell, Senior Lecturer Higher Education-eLearning provides support and professional development for academic teaching staff at the University of Western Sydney (UWS) in Australia. She also researches the use of learning technologies in higher education.

I posed the following questions to Dr. Russell to find out more about her research in the use of mobile technology by college students to enhance their learning experiences, and how instructors have been—and should be—responding.

What are you researching?

I'm coordinating the evaluation of the University of Western Sydney's blended and mobile learning initiatives. In 2012, UWS started a strategic move toward more blended modes of learning and began a significant expansion of support for use of online and mobile learning. Support teams were recruited to help with curriculum redesign, and in 2013 and 2014 we have been giving new undergraduate students iPads. So we have been gathering and analyzing information from first year students through surveys and focus groups, about how they're using online and mobile technologies in their studies. I have also been interviewing teaching staff.

We're using a mixed-method approach. The student survey and other institution-wide quantitative data give quantitative overviews of patterns in the online activities, software tools, and devices our students are using in their studies. Qualitative analysis of student and staff comments gives us deeper insight into how things are working on the ground, and into local decisions about technology use. Fortunately, we have some baseline data from a study done in 2010, so we're able to look at what has changed since then.

There is a lot published on how technology enhances learning in particular discipline contexts. What I'm most interested in is how we can create institutional environments that support everyone in using technology effectively for learning. Some of this is just the infrastructure—like campus Wi-Fi to support mobile device use. Some is in central services, like the library digital resources. There's also a need for a cultural shift away from reliance on individual instructors to do all the innovation themselves. So we're aiming to track not just staff development, but also how changes across whole academic programs are being supported.

What has your research revealed?

Despite concerns from some staff that tablet devices would be a distraction, the data shows the students are using them extensively for study, on and off campus. This effect was immediate and showed in 2013 feedback, even though many of our courses hadn't yet been redesigned. For example, in 2010 students complained about lack of campus computing facilities. Now students have less need to find a computer on campus, as they can use their iPads with the free campus Wi-Fi to access most online resources and services. They also don't need to carry heavy textbooks around if e-books are available.

There has been an increase in instructor use of technologies since 2010—mainly the technologies that were already in common use, such as recorded lectures and podcasts, online resources, and so on. However, the bar has been raised by those instructors who have been using technology creatively to give students a better learning experience. As more technology is available and is used for learning, students increasingly expect all of their instructors to use it effectively.

Another shift we picked up from the quantitative student survey responses was that many more students are using social media to contact each other for study purposes. In 2010, most used email. Discussions in the student focus groups confirmed that email is becoming less effective as a way of reaching students. The more emails we send out asking them to complete a survey, they less they're likely to respond—the law of diminishing returns, or the "tragedy of the commons" pattern.

How can instructors apply your findings to their own work?

The world has changed since 2010. Students are tech savvy, and they want to use mobile devices and connectivity to enhance their learning experience. The role of the instructor is to promote this desire by trusting students to use their technology for the right reasons. This isn't just about letting them bring their devices into class, but also by weaving the use of technology into the pedagogy. Of course, the organization must also do its part by providing the necessary infrastructure, services and support.

My other suggestion is that, where possible, it's better to work with a program team to develop technology-enhanced learning in a discipline. We're moving beyond the early adopter phase in online/blended learning, where ad hoc experiments by a few innovative instructors are enough. To give students a consistent, well-designed, technology-enhanced curriculum, we need to involve everyone who contributes to teaching it.

Where can we find out more?

The journal article "Using Research to Inform Learning Technology Practice and Policy: a qualitative analysis of student perspectives" reports on how the information from our 2010 study has been used to inform institutional support at three Australian universities.

I also presented "Evaluating an Institutional Blended and Mobile Learning Strategy" at a higher education conference last year, but that paper was submitted before the survey results were available. I'm still writing up the evaluation results in full, but in the meantime a preliminary report is available.

About the Author

Ryan Tracey is an Editorial Board Member for eLearn Magazine and an E-Learning Manager in the Australian financial services industry. His work focuses on adult learning in the workplace, and he maintains a particular interest in blended delivery, informal learning, and social media. Ryan has worked in corporate e-learning for over a decade, following several years in the higher education market. He holds a master's degree in Learning Sciences and Technology from the University of Sydney, blogs as the E-Learning Provocateur, and can be found on Twitter as @ryantracey.

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