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Hearing the learners’ voice

December 9th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

One big thing was missing from last weeks Online-Educa Berlin conference was the voice of the learners. Not so strange I suppose in view of the cost of the conference. and not so strange when compared with other conferences on technology Enhanced Learning. Although we talk about leaners a lot, how often do we talk to them or, more importantly, listen.

Although many projects talk about user centred design, and research based design, I get the impression that there is more talk than action. Often technologists are happier with usability rubrics than they are sitting down with real learners.

Of course there is a problem of methodologies. How do we research what learners are doing with technologies. What research methods can help us and how can we interpret the results? Ethnographic studies are one obvious approach and one that many researchers I have talked to have advocated. However, ethnographic approaches, at least in the traditional form of the discipline, are extremely time consuming and require extended access to the subjects of study. Within the Mature project, we have used an approach dubbed Rapid Ethnography. What this really means, I think, is extended case studies.

The UK Jisc funded Learner Experiences of E-learning strand is extremely impressive in this regard. Initial project work helped us, they say, “to understand the complexity of learners’ lives and experiences.” The projects found

  • “Learners are living complex and time constrained lives. In these circumstances efficient and flexible access to learning materials, experts and communities are becoming increasingly important. Learners appreciate flexible access to course related resources.
  • Learners make frequent use of technology both at home and within their institution. They use the internet as the first port of call for information in their lives and expect to be able to locate and download relevant resources for their study.
  • Similarly, many learners are used to establishing and maintaining frequent technology mediated connections and expect frequent and responsive communications in relation to their study.
  • Personalisation and choice are core elements of technology use in learners’ lives that they expect to transfer to their study.
  • There is evidence of an ‘underworld’ of informal learning which is not expected or supported by the institution or its courses but may be enabled and sustained by use of technology.”

I am especially interested in the last of the bullet points and will return to it in a later post.

The methodology is also outlined on the project wiki pages. They found that

And best of all they have “produced a set of recipe cards for different types of data collection methods, particularly well suited to evaluations of learners’ experiences of e-learning:

This is an impressive piece of work. But I particularly like the use of the wiki, not only to provide access to the outcomes of the projects, but to share tools and methodologies with other researchers. If all projects were to follow such an approach we could collectively begin to address some of the methodological challenges for involving users in technology design.

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