At this year’s WCET Annual Meeting, Brandon Karcher, the Manager of Instructional Technology at Bucknell University, facilitated an unconference session titled “Higher Ed Technology: Innovative or Overwhelming.” A thought-provoking Twitter thread flowed from the session, further considering the proliferation of technology tools used in the college classroom today. We here at WCET were thrilled when Brandon accepted our invitation to continue the discussions started in his Annual Meeting session. Brandon asks some great questions about student tech use and provides several suggestions on the best ways to be more supportive of our student’s success.

Enjoy the read,

Lindsey Downs, WCET

Prior to the Fall 2022 semester, I participated in the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) Online Teaching Certification Course, which led me to redesign a course that I had not taught for a number of years. Throughout my design process, I found myself conflicted. I was excited about all of the new things I wanted to try but knew that for the sake of my students, I needed to pump the brakes. More specifically, I knew that I needed to limit the number of technologies that I would ask my students to use. It’s staggering to consider the number of systems, websites, software packages, and other technologies that students have to navigate simply to be successful students in higher education. For my students this past Fall, who were also my advisees, they often told me about the struggles they had in various courses, or when registering for classes. With each new tool, they had to learn something new, figure out a new set of idiosyncrasies, and navigate another set of expectations. The amount of technologies used certainly varies from university to university, but students likely encounter a dozen or more by the end of the first year, and that number only grows. Students need to figure out the learning management system, email, and every instructional technology along the way that faculty require (not to mention everything that isn’t directly course related). It’s hard enough that the tools used from course to course vary, but students also have to deal with them being used inconsistently as well. This issue is further compounded by faculty expectations not aligning with of the digital skills that students have when they arrive on campus. These factors have created an environment where students are truly struggling to navigate the quagmire that is technology in higher education.

During the 2022 WCET conference in Denver, I hosted an unconference session titled Higher Ed Technology: Innovative or Overwhelming? This post is an expansion on the ideas shared during that session and a reflection of some of the recent work I have been doing to examine student perceptions of technology use.

To examine this further, I’ll share a couple of examples where I see students struggling with technology and then offer next steps to consider.

What’s Working and What Isn’t?

One of the first things support staff should be doing is talking to our faculty and especially our students (this is not a hot take, I know). The question posed in the title of this section, “What’s working and what isn’t?” is the same question that we asked both faculty and students at Bucknell in 2021 as part of our Learning Management System (LMS) evaluation of Moodle.

We were beginning to emerge from an extended foray in emergency remote instruction and were hoping to better understand our student and faculty perceptions, pain points, and success stories related to Moodle use. We knew that our students and faculty had relied on Moodle more than ever before and we wanted to know how it went. Here’s what students told us:

  • The most reported major struggle was focused around inconsistent layouts from course to course, which led to confusion.
  • An often reported but related struggle was with grades and deadlines, which were inconsistently posted or, in some cases, not posted at all.
  • Students also commented on the sheer number of tools that were necessary to learn and keep straight.

While these highlight the most reported pain points for students, it’s important to note that when we asked them for good examples of Moodle use, students mentioned specific courses that did a good job organizing content in a way that was intuitive and easy to follow, had clear deadlines, and consistently posted grades.

This past fall, we spoke to students again to have the same conversations, ask the same questions, and see how things were going with Moodle use. Bucknell was back to full in-person teaching and we needed to see if the same pain points were there – spoiler alert, they were.

Students echoed the comments and feedback we had received prior, struggling with inconsistencies and confusion in their courses. This highlighted to us that student struggles were not limited to emergency remote instruction, but were present regardless of modality.

Student Digital Skills: Expectations vs. Reality

The idea of a “digital native” is certainly problematic and something that I and others often push back against. We need to stop thinking of our students as this group of learners that just inherently know how to use digital tools. Over the past few years, and increasingly during the COVID-19 pandemic, we heard from frustrated faculty members about the digital skills our students lacked. Faculty members expectations of what students knew did not match reality. The digital skills that students bring to the table are changing and are often not what faculty members expect. Recently, an article in EdSurge by Lilah Burke explored this exact discrepancy.

Like the faculty members in that article, our faculty have reported similar issues, repeating a common frustration that students do not know how to use Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets, or similar spreadsheet software. Many have also noted that, when asked, students cannot find or locate files, nor do they understand how basic file structures work. While these skills may be important, the technologies that students are exposed to prior to college vary wildly and often work fundamentally different than they used to, no longer requiring, for instance, the need to locate files in a file structure.

Our response to this at Bucknell has been to create a learning community with faculty and staff members from the library, IT, and various departments on campus. Our goals are to:

  1. identify which digital competencies are the most important for student success,
  2. determine where digital skill gaps exist, and,
  3. gather campus partners to learn how we can better prepare our students.  

So, What Now?

Part of my job as the Manager of Instructional Technology at Bucknell is to explore and pilot new technologies, evaluate the tools that we already have, and to be a leader on campus for instructional technology. This is not a unique role and a version of it exists at many (if not most) universities. As someone with this role, I find myself in a precarious position where I must discuss the overwhelming amount of technology that students face but also support the use and development of said technology. However, I truly feel that while technologists, designers, and IT leadership (among others) may have contributed to this problem, we can and should be part of the solution. Here are my thoughts on moving forward:

  • Our faculty need more increased opportunities to participate in and more effective workshops that focus on digital pedagogy and push them to focus on what they want students to do, not the technology alone.
  • Those of us in IT leadership roles need to be advocates for students when it comes to technology on campus and to consider broader, student-centered implications of our decisions.
  • Decision makers, designers, and technologists need to be empowered to say no to requests for new technology, especially when it contributes to the proliferation of tools that students need to contend with.
person gestures to laptop screen
Photo by Headway on Unsplash

While support staff have a role, so do faculty. Something that I struggle with is the never relenting fight between academic freedom and standardization for the sake of students. Students are practically screaming for more consistency in their courses when it comes to technology use and we see this sentiment in the recent work at WCET.

I get asked weekly to check out or consider a new technology that a faculty member wants to try and my feedback always begins with the feedback from our LMS survey and a discussion about technology as well as learning goals. In order for faculty to help us alleviate technology overload, they have a key role and should consider:

  • Helping students understand why you are selecting a specific tool. In his excellent book, Intentional Tech, Derek Bruff discusses not only the importance of scaffolding the use of technology but also explaining the why of technology use to students. Students need to understand why you are using technology and to be provided with adequate training on how to use it.
  • Consider and embrace consistency for the sake of students. As a direct result of our student feedback, we developed Moodle templates in collaboration with campus leaders among the faculty and have had very positive feedback, especially from new faculty.
  • Put. Down. The. Shiny. Object. Similar to support staff saying no, we also need faculty members to consider putting down the shiny new tool. Most campuses have a whole suite of instructional technologies that are integrated with campus systems, making them easier to use for students, and often alleviating FERPA concerns. Trust me, I know that your tool has this one really cool feature, but maybe consider not adding yet another thing to the plates of your students?

Ultimately, my hope is that by working more closely with faculty, IT leadership, and students, we can continue to improve student experiences when it comes to technology and put them in a better position to focus on the content of their courses, not the technologies that are used in them. However, this is a group effort and requires significant work from staff and faculty. I’m confident that we will continue making strides and I look forward to continuing to work with our students to make sure their needs are put first. I hope that you’ll do the same.

Brandon Karcher

Manager, Instructional Technology, Bucknell University


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