Getting students to use (new) apps

I’ve decided to quickly write up some thoughts on getting students to use new apps for learning and teaching as a reflection on what I’ve observed over the last few years and more recently.

It’s safe to say that I approach this post from the point of view that there are many opportunities for digital education to enhance the learning and teaching experience.

More specifically, I’m writing this short article in relation to #MicrosoftTeams and what you need to do to ensure successful uptake by students and staff. What I write here applies to any other new systems – even ones such as Moodle.

Social media all around

It’s fair to say that a lot of students and even staff in higher education use a variety of social media for various purposes. Students and staff still may use Facebook to connect with their friends and family, and classmates and course mates. Statista has a wealth of data on users of Facebook and Twitter, if you’re interested.

Both of these groups may, if they’re interested, use Instagram to create, collate and share images and/or video – photography and multimedia generally. A good number of students use Snapchat and in the UK high numbers of users aged 18-24 are likely to use Snapchat. Some university staff even use Snapchat to engage students in the classroom – with success!

Students aren’t digital natives

A lot of my colleagues in higher education might understandably believe that because students regularly use apps like Snapchat, Instagram, WeChat, Facebook and others that this ability translates into a being able to effectively use digital tools and being tech savvy – being digital natives. – well beyond what my colleagues may have grown up with.

A lot of us use technology to ‘passively soak up information‘ which could be scrolling through a Facebook or Instagram feed and reacting to posts. Yes, perhaps we share the odd image, video or article and add a bit of commentary – commentary – but are these acts critical or rather habitual?

I’d say these are habitual acts that form part of a series of daily routines in which users might fill time – gaps between spurts of attention to other things – and/or while navigating and exploring the vast ocean of information that’s out there. From funny memes to noteworthy articles or click-bait news – it’s all information, and it doesn’t take much effort to open our favorite app to access that information! And this leads me to my main point…

New and unfamiliar systems

In a university setting, students will often use platforms such as Moodle, Blackboard, Google Apps for Education or similar. Microsoft has an answer, too, #MicrosoftTeams. All of these platforms offer a range of activities, structures and systems that can greatly help to manage the design, flow and presentation of information for users.

One thing we should not forget is that the aforementioned systems are created for the purposes of education, business and collaboration generally which go beyond the basic functions of Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram which are primarily for 1:1 or small group chats/discussions that are often centered around the sharing of media.

However, what unites all of these systems, platforms and apps for education is that generally these are unfamiliar to students unless there is a chance that they’d previously used one of them in school. Even then, if, for example, students have used Moodle in school, the look and feel of the system may not represent what they end up seeing in a university setting. Indeed, where modules on Moodle are still often used as repositories rather than engaging learning and teaching hubs, this can be daunting for users of 21st Century systems such as Google Search or Bing that offer information at your fingertips with few hurdles if you understand how to do key word searches. This leads me to a question:

How often do you explicitly train your students in using your university system or an app for a module?

I suspect not a lot of programmes take the time to explicitly provide training to students. That said, think of all the time we spend when we start a new post to receive training on the following:

  • health & safety
  • diversity
  • data protection & GDPR

So why don’t we spend a bit of time investing in the training of digital abilities and skills rather than assuming that the use of a smart phone = being digital and tech savvy? Taking a selfie does not make you a tech expert!

New systems require explicit training

#MicrosoftTeams is taking off as the latest app for learning, teaching and collaboration generally within higher education in the UK. Indeed, I’m using it on a module that I lead on and it’s confirmed a few things that I learned a few years ago.

Between about 2014-2016, I was working with pre-sessional student who would come to the UK during the summertime period to study English as a foreign language for the purposes of improving their academic English language abilities. Students generally had an English language knowledge of about B1 to B2 and they had digital skills that ranged significantly. Nearly all had a smart phone and could use the main apps of the day.

We used Moodle as our online platform with our students to set readings, have online discussions and set assignments that students would write up, upload and submit. Moodle was a system most students hadn’t used and would only use in their university studies. In order to ensure the students’ success in using the online platform as an enabler rather than a distraction, I convinced colleagues to allow all students to receive 1 hour of explicit instruction on hows and whys of using Moodle.

During the summer, we had around 700 students over 3 cohorts that we needed to train up. So, we booked computer labs and trained students in groups of 30-50 each in the space of about 1 hour; there were frequently 3 staff (including myself) on hand to help out and ensure that everyone was on the same page.

Effective training = tangible benefits

Although with the sheer numbers of students to train some days were long, the result was that we were able to ensure that over 90-95% of the students understood what Moodle was and what it was for, why we were using it and how they could access it. This number was able to ensure that we had created a relatively strong community of learning in which students could support each other in understanding and practicing how to navigate an unfamiliar and new system, which in this case was Moodle.

As a side benefit, also important, for students whose first language wasn’t English, they were able to understand that they were going to get a lot of writing practice in English, which would boost their confidence in writing more fluently (albeit not always accurately) in a relatively authentic, meaningful way that they could then transfer back into their own writing for essays and assignments.

Key takeaways

The key takeaway here is this: If we throw the apps at students, they don’t always get it. They generally get Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat… because those are fun apps for fun, social stuff. They won’t necessarily get apps for education, business and collaboration though; these aren’t natural apps – they aren’t always fun (or associated with fun!), so we should prepare our students first before letting the apps loose!

With nominal training (1 hour) students will:

  • develop a critical awareness of the reasons for using the system;
  • gain effective practice in using the basic, required elements of the new system;
  • develop transferable digital skills that can be used for approaching and understanding new systems.

So, if you’re going to teach on a module that involves Moodle, Microsoft Teams and/or similar, and/or if you have a student induction coming up, take the time to build in 1 hour of training.

The results will pay off and speak for themselves!


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