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A student-led evaluation of online learning: meeting students’ learning needs?
Susan Kenyon, Rebekah Dawes and Joe Inge (Susan.Kenyon@Canterbury.ac.uk).
In this blog, we present a student-led evaluation of the online learning design on the Transport: Politics and Society (TPS) module at Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU). The blog focuses on the question, ‘how do our Politics students prefer to learn?’, before providing advice to others who are considering flipped learning in their Politics/International Relations programmes.
This blog aims to add to the fascinating COVID-related discussions that have been hosted by the Teaching and Learning Network this month, as part of the ‘Teaching Politics and IR’ series of webinars.
The Covid pandemic drove learning online across all Higher Education Institutions in the UK. With many Universities planning to keep learning online in 2021/22, in whole or as part of a blended learning offer, it is essential to ensure that our online offer meets our students’ needs.
To this end, we evaluated the extent to which the TPS module, delivered fully-online in 2021, met students’ needs. In this evaluation, students were co-researchers, rather than data sources, embodying the principle of students as partners in learning, which is central to the Learning and Teaching Strategy at CCCU.
In 2021, the TPS module was delivered in line with the flipped learning method. Students were expected to engage in asynchronous online learning, before attending a live online workshop.
Online learning, delivered via Blackboard, included 3-4 short (10-15 minutes), pre-recorded lectures per week. In the main, these were voice-over PowerPoint presentations. Lectures were interspersed with a range of tasks. Some were designed to embed learning, for example, taking a walkabout to notice barriers to mobility in the built environment (within local Covid restrictions). Some aimed to deepen learning, including reading, watching documentaries or listening to music. And some aimed to build learning community amongst peers, for example, participating in discussion boards, or uploading photographs of a recent journey, to compare and contrast experiences.
In the workshops, we applied this learning to solve transport-related problems, taken from that week’s news. For example, we correlated Covid vaccine uptake rates in BAME communities with access to transport and developed policy solutions, if low uptake were related to lack of transport. We applied our learning about the environmental problems that are associated with increasing mobility to tackle transport-related social exclusion, with an Australian government policy to tackle exclusion by offering half-price flights to key destinations.
This learning design was successful, according to traditional evaluations: engagement was high; module evaluation questionnaire responses were positive; attainment was high, including a 100% first time pass rate.
But our evaluation, which focused on how our students like to learn, revealed that something was missing.
Five learning needs emerged.
- 'Feeling' learning v. ‘functional’ learning. The evaluation revealed that, for our students, there is a difference between what was described as functional learning – taking information on board – and feeling learning, where you feel yourself and others in the room changing and being embraced by learning.
- The importance of relationships. The need to see and feel others’ learning and engaging was seen to lift learning. Whereas academics might refer to this as a community of learning, students referred to it as learning with a ‘team spirit’, a mob mentality that is almost Bacchanalian in character, which pushes students on and helps them to achieve their best.
- The importance of structure. Students described two basic structures to help them to learn: a step by step, linear structure to learn facts and the basic knowledge; and a ‘hyperlinked’, flexible structure to deepen understanding, allowing exploration of ideas and making connections between sources and subject.
- Passion, excitement and relevance. Linking to points (1) and (2), feelings of passion and excitement from the tutor, peers and oneself, about the subject and about learning in general, enhances engagement, interest and, therefore, learning. Feelings of relevance enhance passion and excitement, but it also makes learning purposeful: students are learning in order to make a difference. The feeling that learning matters, to them or those they care about, is a central motivation for our Politics students.
- Power sharing and cooperative learning. Finally, an equal balance of power between the lecturer and the students, a sense of trust, of learning together rather than in a hierarchy, produces a sense of cooperating to co-produce learning, rather than a knowledge transfer, emerged as fundamental to how our students like to learn.
So, did the TPS module meet these needs? Yes and no! Whilst points 3-5 were achieved, point 1 and 2 were not met through online-only delivery.
We feel that these two can only be fully met with through an in-person element, which was not possible during delivery of this module. It emerged that an important part of University learning is the more ‘human’ development – understanding, empathy, interpersonal skills, learning how to be around people who are different to you. In addition, our students feel that we learn from body language and that there is a politics of both body and spoken language, which affect engagement and learning. Each of these, it was suggested, need to be face-to-face, to be experienced.
That said, if it weren’t possible to be face to face again, taking time to construct relationships is important and, in the initial weeks, is more important than formal learning. To this end, foregoing traditional activities, e.g. watching lectures, reading, in favour of activities to build relationships, e.g. (for want of a better term) ‘speed-dating’, group-share or role play, are essential. Asking students to speak a recap of their online learning at the start of each session could help; and having cameras on might help with body language, ‘feeling’ learning and team spirit.
Finally, in line with findings presented at a recent PSA webinar by Dr Liam McLoughlin, if lecturers could be seen in the pre-records and could be excited about their subject, rather than talking over PowerPoints in a neutral and professional way, this could help to build a relationship between students and lecturers.
Figure 1. Screenshot of a typical week of online learning on the TPS module, hosted by Blackboard.
Dr Susan Kenyon is Faculty Director of Learning and Teaching and Principal Lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University. Her module, Transport: Politics and Society is available to Level 5 students as part of the Politics and International Relations framework. Rebekah Dawes and Joe Inge are Level 5 BA (Hons) Politics students at Canterbury Christ Church University, who co-evaluated the module through personal reflection, informal discussions with classmates and unstructured discussions, led by Susan Kenyon.
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