One of the unexpected themes to emerge from our expert workshop related to how digital resources are evaluated by students. Although reservations were expressed about particular aspects of OERs, our participants did make use of digital materials in their teaching. However, they identified a constraint in using such resources more widely because of student expectations. Undergraduates, it appears, still have a preference for textbooks and a great deal of uncertainty seems to exist about what digital resources are legitimate to cite in an assessed piece of work.
On a related note, I was surprised to learn during the TRITON user-testing that none of the students had heard of RSS feeds and alerts. In contrast, all the participants in our expert workshop used RSS readers and a variety of other technologies to support their learning and teaching.
Digital Natives: do they exist?
These two observations left me wondering whether the popular contrast between digital native and digital immigrant does more harm than good when thinking about technology and OERs in higher education. According to Wikipedia a digital immigrant is ‘an individual who was born before the existence of digital technology and adopted it to some extent later in their life’ and contrasts with the digital native who has grown up with digital technology. The assumption is that the younger generation is more comfortable with all forms of technology whilst help needs to be given to the digitally bewildered older folks.
The danger of characterising young people like this is the assumption that skills students gain through their online existence as children automatically translate to technological skills required for academic success. I have heard several teachers of Information Skills say that undergraduates do not require classes on VLEs and other technologies because they just ‘pick it up’. This view also takes no account of the diversity of age and background in the contemporary student population.
Student perceptions of the Value of Learning
Student reservations about digital resources described by our workshop participants also point to a more fundamental, if nebulous, barrier to the take up of OERs. Whilst academic staff are trying to find strategies to engage students relevant to their everyday lives the students themselves are seeking to establishing an academic identity distinct from everyday life.
For (most) academics, technology is seen as a tool, but for students a certain degree of academic value is invested in the tool itself. What counts as ‘proper’ academic knowledge is based on a traditional educational system using journals and books as the primary evidence source (at least in the Arts). In this value system websites and videos do not have the same kudos.
Having been brought up in an educational system defined by Key Stage tests and facing increasing financial costs to attend university, students place a great deal of emphasis on the measurement of knowledge and how this translates to examinations. When this is combined with a traditional view of education the expectations of students can become a barrier to newer forms of learning of which OERs form a part.
One of our workshop participants pointed out that until assessment strategies change to acknowledge the greater range of digital resources, OERs and other digital materials will be judged negatively by students. I would add that continuing to refer to digital natives blinds people to the need for educating students in digital literacy. Since OERs are at heart digital in nature, their take up may remain limited if attention isn’t given to both the practical and psychological barriers experienced by students in using technology for academic purposes.