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Centre for Online and Distance Education

Supporting Student Success: Responding to Learners’ Needs


Written by
Clare Sansom

This year’s Supporting Student Success workshop organised by CODE took as it’s theme: Fulfilling the potential of Online and Distance Education. The third of four parallel sessions looked at ways of supporting online learners. Two contrasting talks were presented together in a session with the general title ‘Responding to Learners’ Needs’. First, CODE fellow Samantha Ahern from University College London presented an introduction to, and the case for, the practice known as critical digital pedagogy. The second talk was more practically based and described a CODE project to produce an online guide for staff and students involved in supervising, and writing, postgraduate dissertations. This was given by two CODE fellows who work as independent scholars and educators: Dr Matthew Philpott and myself, Dr Clare Sansom, and one CODE Student Fellow, Tiffany Tupper. Each presentation was followed by a lively discussion.

Keeping the Dream Alive: The case for Critical Digital Pedagogy

Samantha Ahern began an inspiring presentation with a quote from Martin Luther King, writing in 1947 about the purpose of education:

The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education that stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.

This is to say that a utilitarian approach to education, in which there is no sense of it as a common good, produces closed minds and even a corruption of knowledge. There is so much more to education than just the practical pursuit of a goal in the form of a well-paying job. If we are not careful, today’s COVID-driven expansion in educational technology – worth $85 billion worldwide in 2021 and expected to grow to $218 billion by 2027 – will reinforce this utilitarian approach. Technology can be seen as a panacea used ‘to fix things’ without much thought about why and how they should be fixed.

Ahern drew parallels with the 19th-century Luddites in the UK, who fought against the devaluation of their skilled work in textiles by the advent of machines and the precursor to today’s consumer society. Since then, of course, technology has become ever more ubiquitous: if, today, a student cannot graduate without technology, who does that technology serve? In many ways, from the obsolescence built into tech to the bandwidth required to use Zoom effectively, ‘ed-tech’ favours students who are already privileged and drives inequality. A recent Radio 4 programme, ‘Living in the Matrix’ responded to the rise of Facebook’s META by discussing the disturbing prospects of living with, or even in, virtual reality.
Arundhati Roy has said that the pandemic can be thought of as ‘a portal between one world and the next’, and we can imagine a new world far from the commodified world we have been living in and be ready to struggle for it. In education, and, specifically, in ed-tech, the philosophy of critical digital pedagogy might be a useful approach as we investigate what that new world might be. This has four principal characteristics:

  • It centres its practice on community and collaboration
  • It must remain open to diverse, international voices
  • It can never be defined by a single voice, but must gather a cacophony of voices
  • It must have uses and applications outside the traditional institutions of education.

Through it, we can think through some necessary but difficult questions about the core aims of education and the role of technology in it. This will inevitably involve deep thinking about the sustainability and accessibility of that technology. 
Ahern ended by drawing delegates’ attention to some of her own work to embed an anti-racist approach into critical digital pedagogy.

An Interactive Study Guide on Postgraduate Dissertation Research and Writing

I introduced the second presentation, which moved the session from the philosophical and speculative to the purely practical. Masters’ students in a wide range of disciplines are faced, towards the end of their courses, with the need to write an assessed dissertation. For many, this is the largest piece of written work that they have undertaken, and they can find it daunting. In 2019, the CDE responded to this need by setting up a project to produce an interactive, web-based study guide to the process of researching and writing dissertations at this level, which would be aimed at London University, students but which could be adapted for use elsewhere. Besides myself and my co-presenters, Matthew Philpott and our student fellow Tiffany Tupper, the project team included two other CDE fellows, David Baume and Stephen Brown, and Sarah Singer, a lecturer in Refugee Law from the School of Advanced Study, who first proposed it.

After introducing the project team, I handed over to Tiffany Tupper, who had recent experience of dissertation writing in her University of London MSc in climate change and development, and who was speaking from Washington DC.  She explained her principal role in the project, which had been to develop a survey for academics across the University of London who supervise dissertation modules. This asked what gaps there were in preparing students for dissertation writing and how a guide could help fill these. Although there were obvious differences between disciplines, the survey results revealed clear commonalities, and this provided a backbone for the development of the study guide itself.

Matthew Philpott then explained that, as the survey had taken place in May-June 2020, its scope had been limited by COVID restrictions. However, the academics who responded agreed on a basic set of skills that students starting dissertations lacked (or lacked confidence in): research methods, critical thinking, academic writing, literature surveys and developing arguments. These matched Tiffany’s own experience with her MSc dissertation and formed the basis for the guide as it was planned. In the end, however, there was only time within the project to create six of the ten modules that were originally proposed:

  1. Clarifying the parameters
  2. Identifying your research question, topic and title
  3. Identifying methodologies
  4. Using and managing sources of information
  5. Defining and prioritising tasks and managing time
  6. Conducting a literature review

These modules are linked but can stand alone if that is preferred. They are designed to be used flexibly, either by students working alone or in a workshop format, and each includes resources for lecturers or workshop leaders.  Each module can be downloaded as a Word or PDF file, and the whole package is available on Moodle. The team hopes to be able to develop a further four modules through a second CDE project, starting later this year. 

Free download of course materials.