Three R’s that universities care about

With apologies to David’s 5Rs of reuse…

Whenever a new technology, or approach, or technology driven approach arises, the claims for it are often varied, ranging from student emancipation, to cost saving, to complete revolution of the higher education system. It often seems that nearly all of the early years of a technological development are spent arguing about what exactly it can help with, what problem it is solving. In this post I am taking a purely pragmatic approach, in that I am going to suggest that for any tech development to be taken up long term, it needs to solve some specific concerns of universities. Now, I fully accept that learning takes place outside of universities, or your goal might be to completely destroy that system. That may well be so, but that is probably a different argument. And similarly there are deeper perspectives than this one which address issues such as learner emotion, deep learning, etc. But my argument here is if you think an ed tech development has value, then a good strategy is to make an argument based on these pragmatic lines and recognise the context within which it is operating.

In an increasingly competitive higher education system, what is it that senior management at higher education institutions are concerned with? I guess the base line might be economic survivability, but if we take a level of abstraction above the purely financial, then I would argue that most good vice chancellors, provosts, presidents etc are legitimately concerned about three areas, as they seek to pursue their overall mission of educating people:

  • Recruitment – depending on who you are, getting students is an issue. If you are an elite university it is not so much a matter of getting sufficient students, but getting the types of students you want. Either way recruiting students is the lifeblood of any university.
  • Retention – having recruited students, you then need to keep them. Why do students drop out within a module, or fail to progress to another module? What can we do to help students with particular needs? How can we be flexible enough to accommodate non-traditional students?
  • Reputation – what is the reputation of the university with potential students (see recruitment), the general population, the local community, the media, government, etc. What is it known for? What perceptions or misconceptions about it do people hold?

Now consider any recent tech development in the light of these three Rs: learning analytics, MOOCs, OERs, learning design, VLEs, etc. Quite often we have made confused claims against all three, or ignored these in favour of revolutionary rhetoric (“MOOCS will democratise education for all!”) or more abstract potential (“open education creates better citizens”). These may be true in the long run, but more practically it is useful to make specific claims against one or more of these Rs, and then set about conducting research which can verify this. It may be less exciting, but ultimately more useful if we can do this.

Let’s take OER as an example. Our work with the OER Research Hub has found that many students are using OERs before they take up formal study, so are trialling subjects. And others are using OERs to supplement their study whilst in formal education. We need some further work to get evidence on this: what is the conversion rate from studying OERs to formal study? How can this transition be helped effectively? Does using OERs in formal study lead to greater retention of students?

I would propose that answering such questions against one or all three of the Rs should be an aim for any new ed tech development once it moves beyond the experimental stage, if it is to be adopted widely in higher ed.

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