Technology brings postgrads in from the cold
Smartphones and laptops mean students on field trips can interact with universities
A postgraduate student is on a field trip to the Orkney Islands collecting data for her PhD in cultural heritage. She checks her RSS feed on her smart phone over breakfast, honing in on the most relevant reports from hundreds of professional journals and blogs that she follows.
Her working day begins with a Skype meeting with supervisors in Leicester and Glasgow. Together they edit an article via Google Docs. She then publishes a blog via Wordpress, which she uses to share and test ideas-in-progress with peers and experts worldwide. Some critically appraise her thoughts, linking their own knowledge and research. She tweets about her blog, asking for ideas.
She shares her data with research team members via data storage Dropbox. She uploads a video of her field excursion to one of the most remote islands on YouTube, alongside other clips she's archiving for her dissertation.
This is a model postgraduate, employing technology to the full, according to Prof Allison Littlejohn, director of the Caledonian Academy at Glasgow Caledonian University. While all higher education institutions now have some sort of virtual learning environment (VLE), learning technology is only as good as its users, she says. VLEs have been criticised as a clunky "dumping ground" for resources – material often with low production values and unsuited to online learning. Universities tend to try and replicate face-to-face conventional teaching on their technology platforms "but this strategy doesn't exploit the potential of technology to transform learning," says Littlejohn. Academia would do well to look at the world of professional learning, which is adept at connecting with and provoking others to learn online.
Collaborating and communicating with other people in your field is motivating and productive at a postgraduate level – akin to the buzz successful social media users might feel. Postgraduates already tend to do this quite naturally, say education experts, using tools such as Twitter and Facebook – the online equivalent of the student bar – mixing social and academic chit chat, drawing attention to research, exchanging notes.
And when cohorts get together in more orchestrated online settings, results can be inspirational, says Debbie Lawley, managing director of digital learning company WillowDNA, which creates and facilitates professional and academic learning environments. She remembers the excitement around spontaneous learning as a group of young advertising professionals approached their final assessment for a postgraduate course run for the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. "I was watching discussions emerge online – the intensity of the dialogue was superb. The online environment is perfect for emergent knowledge and peer reviewing."
Social media rules apply
The golden rules of social media apply equally to academia, says Niall Sclater, director of learning and teaching at the Open University, industry-recognised experts in online study. Expect social networking to become more sophisticated, he says. Pairing up with "study buddies" at postgraduate level already happens on an ad-hoc basis but he expects technology to improve to facilitate this with more ease.
Naturally the OU excels at coaxing collaboration between distant learners – and this is especially important at postgraduate level, with active forums, unofficial social groups, moderation of discussions "students like to feel they are being listened to" and one-to-one communication with tutors.
"Email is still an excellent tool for that," he says. "Many elements of technology make study more interesting and easy in a way it wasn't before," says Sclater. "Expect a gradual evolution as these means become easier and easier to use."
Technology and learning – the future
Expect internet search tools for online academic repositories to become more responsive. Engines such as "Google scholar" are becoming more sophisticated in suggesting content that might be of interest and allowing researchers to build a profile.
Eventual applications of Google Glass within higher education are anticipated – think enhanced collaboration between research teams, virtual field trips, possibilities of contributing your own input to augmented reality. "Imagine an architecture student looking at a building or historian at a battlefield, listening and adding their own knowledge to resources," says Sclater.
Dissertations and theses may contain more multimedia based elements in the future.
Gesture-recognition technology might be used to create immersive environments teaching surgical procedures for example. "Speculative at the moment," says Sclater.
Hologram technology being developed by Cisco allows three-dimensional real-time presence – think guest lecturers available worldwide.
- mendeley.com – academic content management and social network for nearly 2.4 million users
- knodium.com - online open social platform for students and academics across universities
- busuu.com – language teaching exchange
- scholar.google.co.uk Google scholar
- academia.edu – share and follow research