When I was at school, mobile phones and MP3 players were banned from the classroom. In no way were they considered to be an aid to education.
The same went for downloads. If pupils were to download anything, it would be their favourite piece of music in their free time. Now, however, these formats have united to become a means of furthering a student’s learning.
“We are going through a revolution,” says Ray Irving, head of learning and resource development at Warwick Business School in the UK. He explains that, while the technology of downloading is not new, downloading on to portable devices, particularly mobiles, is new. Increasing numbers of business students are carrying and using these devices everywhere they go. This shows technology is clearly no longer a barrier for students. They buy the devices anyway, because they are cheap and multifunctional and they are accustomed to the concept of downloading. “It has become second nature to most,” says Mr Irving.
As a result, business schools are web-enabling all their course materials for students to access in this way. But is there really an added value to this?
David Costa, dean and collegiate professor at Robert Kennedy College in Switzerland, admits the faculty at his school were doubtful about this new medium at first.
“Can you really study on a mobile?” was the initial question asked. In their minds, students needed to be sitting at a desk in front of a computer when studying, not lying on the sofa with their mobile.
But now, Mr Costa says, even the most ardent sceptics have been converted after trying it out for themselves. “People don’t really want to be sat in front of a computer for hours,” he explains, “especially those who work in an office all day.”
Mr Irving at Warwick says that schools have now realised that activities done away from the desk, jogging or travelling for example, that they previously considered to be “dead time” can in fact complement the learning experience.
“Students can listen on the move,” he says, “and it stimulates more senses than simply reading.”
This new awareness of the benefits of downloads to portable devices as a learning tool is making the medium more varied and sophisticated. Raw recordings of lectures, directly uploaded on to websites are now being complemented by podcasts that have been edited and indexed, or specifically designed for students to download.
Andrew Weir, an MBA student at Athabasca University in Canada, says one of the things he likes most about the online downloading format is the school library.
He says: “[It] has the ability to create a citation for the paper you need, a major timesaver when working on assignments and projects requiring significant research.”
Some downloads have complete lectures that include comments from the students that were present. Others give short explanations of difficult concepts or key points with added features such as slide shows.
Claudia Luca, head of operations at Resource Development International in the UK says: “Faculty now take all their work through online platforms.”
And students are also starting to get involved, posting content on to forums.
Mr Irving describes how one student recorded himself speaking the lecture notes. “The other students loved it; it was immediately shared with hundreds across the world and created a sense of authenticity.”
More recently, downloads have interactive-based content. The Open University Business School in the UK, for example, now has an MBA elective called “Managing in Action”, which is designed to enable students to relate the material directly to their work.
All content is downloadable and in future there will be just one piece of printed material available. Students are encouraged to engage rather than become too attached to textbooks. This would counteract the issue of passive learning that some have suggested could happen using this medium.
Robert Kennedy College has invested in a customised platform to this end. “Most of our competitors use a standardised platform called Blackboard,” says Mr Costa, “but we were keen to move one step further, in order to respond quickly to feedback from our students.”
Mr Costa is also publishing a course textbook online only for the first time this year. “E-books are easy to update quickly when editions change,” he says. “They also work well in remote places, where printed editions are often not readily available.”
There is a concern that in spite of all these efforts, some will still be dismissive of the format. “My worry is that students think the content is less valuable because there is no beautifully printed book,” says Devendra Kodwani, senior lecturer in finance and director at the Open University.
He advises students to separate the medium from the content and just take advantage of having another way of accessing content to enhance and support their studies.
Those whose student days were restricted to lectures, note-taking and queues in the library to borrow one book would no doubt agree that students are now spoilt for choice.