What If Students Are the Biggest Barrier to Innovation?

What If Students Are the Biggest Barrier to Innovation?

As Alexandra Pickett worked to bring new technology and teaching styles to New York State University, she faced an unexpected challenge. Pickett, who directs the Center for Online Teaching Excellence, said one of the biggest barriers to innovation has been student resistance.

“Most of my students come in with a lot of trepidation and a lot of anxiety,” says Pickett, speaking about her graduates at SUNY. “They don’t want to fail publicly; they are very concerned about their grades, and some are concerned with privacy.” For Pickett, it is a struggle to implement new digital learning styles with adult students as many of them are accustomed to traditional lecture models and are dismayed when they don't get what they expect.

Pickett is not alone, in a study conducted in 2014 by Ithaka S+R at University System of Maryland, researchers found that when students took new MOOC courses, they expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the programs, saying they felt they learned less than their peers in traditional classes. The student responses contrasted significantly with professors, who reported having positive experiences with the MOOCs and saw many benefits to implementing such technologies. The study also noted that some higher education leaders were “less certain” about the impact self-directed learning would have in the university space.

Dr. Marilyn Morgan, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, echoed sentiments in the report saying that students, particularly those in her department, are reluctant to engage with education technology and find personalized learning techniques, such as group and self-directed learning, frustrating.

“When I first brought this up I got groans. I got resistance,” says Morgan. “I got people telling me; ‘This is history. Why do we have to do this? I like paper, and I like old stuff.'”

Both Morgan and Pickett noted that the “metaphor” of the old and wise professor pouring knowledge into students through class lectures is what many graduate students expect. When they don’t get that experience because they are forced to do group work and interact with peers (who they do not view as subject-matter experts), they don’t feel like they are learning.

“I have had students tell me. I am not paying to listen to my neighbor's thoughts, I am paying to hear you,” says Pickett.

Morgan says she feels the pressure to innovate in spite of this resistance from students because she wants to make sure her students are prepared for a digital world. Even so, at the beginning of every semester, she worries.

“I had my students make these interactive timelines. One student wrote me this email saying he went to business school, was a professional, and had never spent so much time one assignment. It was scathing, and I was in tears. I was like, Oh my god, I am going to lose my job,” explains Morgan.

Other professors share Morgan's fears. They report similar student attitudes. And those attitudes can have an impact, since students who don’t like the changes being implemented sometimes leave harsh critiques of the course in their evaluations. These critiques can discourage other students from taking the course or cost lectures their contract renewals. However, Morgan says that in order to prepare students for the future, it is important for professors to overcome these fears.

“I am not here to get reviews, I am there because I want to help people learn,” says Morgan. “One hundred percent of my students have jobs within three months of graduating, that is what my goal is.”

To make the transition easier for students, Morgan says it is important for educators to be flexible in their grading, and to express that to graduates. She also advises professors to make incremental changes, as opposed to massive overhauls, so that they have time to explain each assignment and technical tool in detail. That way, variations in technological tools like different interfaces don’t hamper student progress and stress them out. “You have to invest a lot more time in preparing,” says Morgan. “You need a backup plan.”

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