Who is the Future Student?

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This past week, the last of our class’ group-led seminars kicked off along with a topic I’ve been anticipating all trimester: what’s next for online education and who is the future student? The group leaders included an interesting paper from Selwyn et al (2020) where social science fiction highlighted the possible unforeseen consequences of adapting technology within education.

The authors created several fictional scenarios at the equally fictional Lakeside High School, set in 2030. These vignettes introduce us to a future in which education is highly automated, whereby teachers no longer have pedagogical agency and students who score higher on an assessment than their analytic profile predicts are branded as cheaters. The authors acknowledge the wild speculation at play; the purpose of these vignettes is to demonstrate the human element of technological adaptation. In other words, technology is a human problem.

While I think it is dangerous to assume too much about the future, COVID has forced everyone in education to consider both our short-term and long-term institutional and sectoral goals. We are now in a position where we must reconsider our investments. Do we continue to commit to upgrading or expanding our physical campus or do we change direction and instead consider upgrading our digital space? If we were determined to use a specific LMS before, do we continue to use that LMS now or do we need something else that fits our new purpose? Should our approach to modality change as well? These are all choices about how to use technology that have a human impact.

It is difficult to determine what the future student will expect or want from institutions but COVID has provided some guidance. Most students have now experienced, on the whole, some form of online learning. While many will be eager to return to campus, there will be some who appreciate the flexibility of learning remotely. I suspect this means that HEIs will need to become much more agile in order to attract and retain these future students, be they next term’s intake or the next decade’s.

On a personal note and as I’ve mentioned before, I could not have envisioned undertaking my MSc at this stage in my life if physical attendance were required. The ability to undertake my qualification on my own terms has created a student (and the accompanying fees) where, even a few years ago, there would not have been one. I’m currently examining online CELTA courses to attend over the summer and even the online delivery option has several versions or structures to suit various student preferences. In many ways, I feel like a discerning shopper, weighing up options and choosing solely based on my individual priorities, (eg, what works for my busy schedule).

Recent discussions around hyflex learning are interesting to me as a possible future direction for higher education. Hyflex learning is defined as hybrid+flexible, or allowing for multi modalities, online and face-to-face, for the same course (Miller, 2021). Although the term first popped up over a decade ago, only recently, has it resurfaced as a contender for the future of university education.

I see the resurgence as two-fold. Neoliberal approaches to HE, whereby students become consumers of education and view their degree as a capital investment, has changed the dynamic between student and university (Houghton, 2019). In 2020, many students felt that the hefty tuition fees did not deliver value for money. Scotland escapes this to a certain extent as undergraduate fees remain publicly funded, however, in most parts of the world, tuition fees have increased dramatically.

In addition to this longer-term shift, COVID highlighted both the inflexibility of HE along with, in some cases, substandard solutions through a wobbly digital pivot. This was an issue at my institute, where employers, not students, pay the fees yet, students complained to employers that the course in its ‘just in time’ form was not sufficient to prepare them for their assessments. Employers in turn have exerted pressure on us. Our learning transformation takes into account both our students and our employers, for this reason.

I’m interested in how hyflex becoming more mainstream as universities think about the future delivery model or models, would impact on pedagogy? In class, we have learned about the ways in which online learning can create a different kind of learner – more autonomous and more self-directed (Palloff & Pratt 2003). We accept the ways in which online learning can improve certain functionalities whilst struggling to replicate others. Would we now have to rethink our approach to learning if we no longer have one experience in the online environment and another face to face? What challenges would instructors face if they are managing two modalities simultaneously? Might it make their lives easier in some ways?

How would students feel about being in one camp or the other? A recent study highlighted a case of hyflex learning in Hong Kong as lockdown was easing but not all students felt comfortable or able to attend the physical classroom (Kohnke & Moorhouse, 2021). Essentially, two modes of study were delivered simultaneously with even synchronous group work undertaken across remote and face to face students. While students appreciated the flexibility of learning options, students felt that the logistics were sometimes distracting and remote students often felt left out of exchanges between instructors and students or amongst peers.

I believe my institute, as well as others, will consider hyflex as a possible way forward as it would allow us to open up our market to rural Scottish students, English students outwith our training locations and even international students whilst retaining employers and students who are deterred by online learning. In the short term, it would please employers and students who are ready to return to the physical classroom as well as those who aren’t. What challenges would we face, though, in creating a group cohesion across these different modalities? Would we please no one in trying to please everyone?

Personally, I enjoy attending the synchronous sessions but I know many of my peers undertake this course without attending class. I enjoy the immediate discussion, something that is impossible to replicate in a forum or padlet. Does this create two streams of students in our class? In some ways, I would say it does and this leads me to wonder if the same is true in a hyflex environment. Do we end up with modal cliques?

This brings me back to the social science fiction vignettes I mentioned at the beginning of this post. When adopting a new technology or practice, the adopters sometimes can’t foresee the impact that this adoption will have long-term. It’s important to consider how a new technological tool or practice might change behaviour and culture as well. Selwyn et al remind us as we move forward with change, believing it will change things one way, we need to consider how it could change things in myriad, unanticipated ways.

Houghton, E. (2019). Becoming a neoliberal subject. Ephemera19(3), 615-626.

Kohnke, L., & Moorhouse, B. L. (2021). Adopting HyFlex in higher education in response to COVID-19: students’ perspectives. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 1-14.

Miller, A. N., Sellnow, D. D., & Strawser, M. G. (2021). Pandemic pedagogy challenges and opportunities: instruction communication in remote, HyFlex, and BlendFlex courses. Communication Education70(2), 202-204.

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2003). The virtual student: A profile and guide to working with online learners. John Wiley & Sons.

Selwyn, N., Pangrazio, L., Nemorin, S., & Perrotta, C. (2020). What might the school of 2030 be like? An exercise in social science fiction. Learning, Media and Technology45(1), 90-106.

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