words by Kathleen Donaghey
For today’s university students, technology is as much a part of daily life as food and toilet paper. Surveys reveal that before Millennials even get out of bed, they have already checked emails and social media accounts. Sixty per cent of Generation Y say they compulsively check messages throughout the day, one-third use smartphones on the toilet and one in five while driving.
With such preoccupation with devices, it is almost “unavoidable” that universities make use of digital technology to cater to and enhance the learning of today’s “digital natives”.
Professor Neil Selwyn, from Monash University’s Education Faculty, explains that digital technology is now “infused into everything we do” on campus.
“These students were born just before Google started so they don’t know any different,” he says.
“Everything we do, whether it’s online learning systems, even something as simple as video lectures, is transforming what university is about. Digital technology is a complete game changer.”
At first glance, lecture theatres may have the same general appearance as 20 years ago, with rows of seats angled towards a lecturer whose role it is to impart pearls of wisdom to budding learners.
But as class begins, today’s students open laptops and digital notebooks rather than scrawl handwritten notes with pen and paper.
The course lecturer at the front of the room also performs not just to students present but to a geographically dispersed audience watching remotely on live streaming and to students who will later view the video lecture online.
Prof Selwyn says the basic act of recording lectures means students no longer have to attend campus- and many don’t. They can now absorb lectures “in their own time and at their own pace” which is further enhanced by the fact each week’s course learning materials are also available online.
Some universities have begun introducing so-called “binge courses” in which all subject material is released en masse rather than progressively throughout the semester – and completed in the student’s own time.
Such new levels of flexibility enabled by online tools has led academics to question the future of traditional face-to-face lectures – and even the fate of sprawling campuses – as a physical destination for students.
But Prof Selwyn says solo learning requires a level of self-discipline and commitment that many people struggle with. He also believes there is much more to be gained from “live” lectures than the same class viewed online.
“Universities are not just about content but interaction and learning with your peers,” he says.
“Even in those minutes when you’re walking into the classroom and chatting to other students about the program, you are learning. It’s something that’s just a human process. Personally, if I had the time I would always go to the live lecture. It’s like going to the gym – if left to your own devices you won’t do it.”
“But if you make yourself go you’ll always feel better and start enjoying it and feel motivated.”
Some degrees, such as medicine and aviation, may never be entirely virtual but advances in technology are continually changing the way students in these fields learn.
The University of the Sunshine Coast’s medical students, for example, perform dissections on virtual anatomy tables, slicing open digital bodies with the swipe of a finger.
The 3D bodies are highly accurate real human anatomy, exactly how a cadaver would look but without the mess. Finger swiping of virtual cadavers speaks to the language of Millennials as do aviation flight simulators and virtual reality headsets.
But Prof Selwyn says there are downsides to digital technology in the lecture theatre, not the least of which is the basic distraction of YouTube clips and social media like Facebook.
When students have their laptops open, it only takes one daydreaming pupil to click on a cat video and the eyes of those sitting nearby are almost compulsively drawn to the screen.
Prof Selwyn says surveys have found the attention of Millennial students zones in and out during the course of a lecture, particularly when devices are present.
“Some students have started asking for lectures where there are no devices allowed and they welcome paper books and notepads,” he says.
“Digital technology is so much a part of the rest of their lives that students want to keep a separation between leisure and study.”
“There’s something to be said for university lecture theatres being digital free.”
About the author
Journalist Kathleen Donaghey has more than a
decade’s experience in newspapers. She co-founded
and currently runs an independent news magazine