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What are our students’ views about learning technology?

The Australian Universities accord process has gained widespread engagement and attention from current providers, their leaders and interest groups already involved in the system. As a means of developing an accord across the sector’s providers with the government, it has been a big step forward. But other important stakeholders have largely been missing from the conversation, including current and future students and employers who will both ultimately benefit from any reforms. There is a chance to engage these stakeholder groups in the final report, and in the mechanisms that get established for ongoing oversight.

These other stakeholders also include global higher education leaders and innovators from other sectors. Including their perspective on the technology dimension of a future sector and its experiences helps ensure global competitiveness and future proofing against disruption. It would be a major oversight if the process didn’t also build in strong views on technology impacts on learning in a future higher education system from students.

The university learning environment and experience is changing rapidly. Technology has been a big part of this change, and as we consider how to strengthen universities for the future as part of the Universities Accord process, the position and potential of technology, and students’ views of this, must be at the centre of our policy thinking.

To help inform the public policy debate, Mandala supported the Coalition for Digital Learners by researching the role of education technologies in Australian universities today – to find out what’s working well, what needs improving, what the barriers to progress are, and what the benefits of reform could be. Importantly, their report focused as much on hearing from students themselves as university administrators and policymakers.

The survey of Australian university students showed that they place a high value on technology to help them succeed in their studies, and that they overwhelmingly use technology in ethical and effective ways.  80 per cent of students said online learning has had a positive impact on their academic experience. Nearly 60 per cent of students agreed that greater integration of technology would improve their learning and make it more engaging and entertaining – less than one fifth of students disagreed.

Importantly, the survey also showed students from diverse backgrounds – including those from lower socio-economic groups, those who don’t speak English as a first language, those caring for others, or those balancing study with work responsibilities – place greater importance on the flexibility and support that education technology tools offer to help them succeed. These are the students the accord is seeking to grow to meet future national skills needs.

More than half of students from diverse backgrounds said the availability of online learning was one of the most important priorities for them compared to other learning preferences. More than 45 per cent listed the ability to learn at their own pace as one of the most important issues. These results indicate that technology-enabled educational support tools play an important role in driving greater equity in participation and graduation outcomes.

Lastly, the report found that fears about technology – especially generative AI – having significant integrity impacts on learning are misplaced. The report shows that most university students are using technology as supplementary tools to help them succeed in their studies – not for academically dishonest reasons. 90 per cent of students use online education tools to help them learn at their own pace, enhance their learning experience, or to make their learning more personalised and engaging. Just 10 per cent of students reported using technology to help them access answers to homework or exam material that they did not understand. Moreover, while this small cohort may include some with unethical motivations, it also includes students driven by a genuine lack of understanding of course material, seeking to use technology to overcome this.

Any new policy on regulation needs to recognise that technology is overwhelmingly being utilised at universities for proper and productive purposes, to ensure this does not diminish or destroy these ethical uses. There is a significant danger of us throwing the student learning and engagement baby out with the compliance bathwater.

Given the links between technology use and equitable engagement, technology should have a central role in lifting equity in higher education. Technology should also play a more central role in the Universities Accord process and what it leads to, potentially in conjunction with the Australian and global EdTech sector and industry. A fuller embracing of technology in teaching and learning will improve both quality and equity of the university system. At a time when we’re looking to increase student numbers and include more diverse Australians in university than ever before, the power of technology to achieve policy aims can’t be overlooked.

And as we aim to engage more students from a broader set of backgrounds and support more of them to succeed, the views of students about the technology support they are receiving, hoping for, and expecting, is crucial. We need it for a real accord based on innovation between our sector and its future primary stakeholders.

We discussed these issues and their importance to sector change and innovation and the sector’s future efficiency and our national productivity, in a conversation on a recent HEDx podcast episode available here. We commend it as an important input to the accord and an example of how an ongoing voice from these and other stakeholders is crucial to the sector continuing to innovate in a global context in a way that will serve national interests.

First published in Campus Review on 18th September 2023.

Professor Martin Betts, Founder of HEDx

Jason Tabarias, Partner, Mandala