ASIA: Tensions in student preferences for e-learning

If one asks students what they want from e-learning, one often hears: more information resources, more notes, more powerpoints, more stuff. This can be interpreted as students wanting to be spoon-fed and not being interested in constructing their own understanding. In this part of the world, this interpretation is reinforced by decades of rhetoric about the 'passive Chinese learner'.

However, the evidence of our e-learning research group here in the Centre for Learning Enhancement and Research (CLEAR) at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) paints a different picture. The following observations are based on a number of studies, involving surveys and interviews, with students and teachers at CUHK**.

Our understanding is that students negotiate a fine path between a pragmatic need to achieve good grades in their assessments and a genuine desire to understand the discipline they have chosen for their university studies.

If their assessment tasks rely predominantly on reproducing existing descriptions, then they value clear information that they can reproduce. This makes eminent sense, especially in a culture where there are high stakes associated with success, and where the loss of face that failure brings - even in one university course - is more serious than it is in other cultures.

But if students are asked what type of e-learning assists their learning of the discipline, rather than just success in obtaining grades, the response is that learning activities involving interactions are more beneficial. Interactions can be with materials - such as in quizzes, online tutorials, simulations etc. - and/or with people, such as in structured forum discussions, online role-plays, online peer reviews of draft assignments etc.

The obvious solution to this tension is to ensure that assessment tasks do NOT simply require reproduction of prepared information. Indeed, the statements of desired learning outcomes for almost all university courses include the enhancement of a range of cognitive and social capabilities such as critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills.

It is therefore reasonable to assume that assessment tasks should be designed to allow students to show to what extent they have developed these important capabilities in the context of their discipline field.

So, if students need to demonstrate higher-order thinking skills and show a broad range of communicative capabilities for assessment purposes, then students' desire for online support to help them achieve high grades will align with their (perhaps intuitive?) belief that interactive aspects of technology can better support their disciplinary understanding and growth in learning.

My own experience of nearly a decade in Hong Kong is that diversity in assessment strategies is growing, that articulation of learning outcomes is now a routine part of programme and course design, and that alignment between these learning outcomes and assessment is built into both policy and practice at CUHK and sister institutions.

This success has been supported by a number of initiatives by the Hong Kong government and, in my view, is one of the feel-good success stories of the region. It is a work in progress, but going in the right direction.

However, the 'missing link' in the chain is that e-learning has not been built into the programme and course design process and is seen as a 'bolt-on' after the event to add a bit of convenience and interest.

The growing evidence base that indicates that appropriate uses of technology can support student learning does not feature highly in academic discussions about teaching and learning in Hong Kong. My impression is that the role of teacher as the 'sage on the stage' fits well within a hierarchical cultural worldview and that the status of 'professor' is believed to be protected in a face-to-face context.

I said "perhaps intuitive" earlier because CUHK students do not have a great deal of experience of studying online in an interactive mode. A main challenge of the whole e-learning context in universities in Hong Kong is that the potential of e-learning is under-utilised.

Studies of web logs of learning management systems (such as Blackboard or Moodle) show a preponderance of non-interactive content files and there is relatively little use (only about a quarter of websites) of the interactive activities listed above. So there is a disconnect between the improvement in student assessment practices in Hong Kong and the use of technology to support students in their assessment endeavours.

Students as young adults are often termed 'digital natives'; however, there is little evidence that they are natural 'digital learners', partly perhaps because of the dearth of e-learning experience available to them. However, our survey results indicate that the more experience students have with e-learning, the more positive they appear to be towards the use of technology for learning.

Hong Kong is a well-connected city with excellent IT infrastructure; the city projects the image of a vibrant, technologically saturated milieu. It also has an astoundingly high mobile phone ownership (188% at the end of 2010).

It is therefore just a little surprising that here in Hong Kong the use of social media - what is often termed Web 2.0 - is quite low in formal university courses. We do have teachers using podcasts to support student learning, students producing media and displaying them in YouTube or in our ITunesU site, the use of blogs, wikis, twitter and e-portfolios for information sharing and reflection, and a number of mobile learning projects. All good stuff, but only in a small number of courses.

Why this educational conservatism? Why is the abundance of technological infrastructure not used more extensively?

In addition to the cultural aspect mentioned above, my personal belief is that the overriding reason that there is limited use of web functionality in the design of course websites at CUHK is that teachers' investment of time, and commitment to innovative and interactive uses of e-learning, are not sufficiently rewarded.

As for students, the stakes for teachers are high and so teachers' behaviour is moulded by what is rewarded for their own career development.

And so I will end with a number of questions that have been the subject of much debate. Do our universities value research outputs over teaching excellence? How can universities in Hong Kong (and elsewhere) develop criteria for teaching excellence that encompass the whole range of teaching activities that support student learning? And how can universities that do develop such criteria convince teachers that they will seriously be used in personnel decisions?

These questions need to be answered so that our students in the 21st century can benefit from the best learning environments we can possibly design for them.

* Carmel McNaught is Director and professor of learning enhancement at the Centre for Learning Enhancement And Research (CLEAR) at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

**References to these and other studies on student learning can be found here