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“The university did a survey, and it turns out that more than 95% of students have a smart phone or smart device of some sort.”  This statistic was mentioned during a session on technology and teaching I attended this week.  It gave us a lot of ideas on the ways in which technology can be helpful – or not – in supporting students’ learning, but one moment gave me pause, and made me wonder about how critically we need to think when making assumptions about students.  Specifically, about the ways in which we classify certain students as “typical” and make decisions or arrangements based on what the “typical” students need or can do.  This isn’t a criticism of the particular technology involved, but a reflection on the factors which affect our thinking about students, and how they connect without our noticing them.

It was during a discussion of various means by which lecturers can get instant feedback from students: via miniature “remote controls” handed out at the start, via iPhone apps, via a website which they can log into.  All of these are geared towards a simple press of a button from 1-10, or the alphabetical equivalent.  All this is probably very basic to a lot of people reading this piece, but to those of us who hadn’t seen it in action before, it sparked a few ideas.  Instant polls on whether a grammatical example or problem had been understood.  Votes on whose opinions had changed during the last half hour.  Crossroads moments when students could affect the direction of the talk (“I’m sorry, King Lear, you have been voted out of this lecture…”)

However, the “more than 95%” figure rather stopped me in my tracks.  Partly because, as my own device was busy proving, owning a “smart” phone doesn’t mean it’ll be able to carry out the task assigned to it sufficiently.  (My favourite colour is still forlornly unregistered on that readout screen.)  Mostly, because my experience of pastoral work has made me a bit suspicious of those sorts of numbers.  In the grand tradition of whoever made that saying up, we should always “reverse the statistic” in such cases.  When she was a housemistress, my mother used to remark that having slightly over a hundred girls in a boarding house made percentages into a daily reality.  If, on average, fifteen percent of girls and young women experienced a particular problem or life situation, that was fifteen actual people she would need to talk with and support over the year.

If only two percent experienced a more serious problem – the sort of number mathematically unskilled people like me are used to writing to off as insignificant enough to mean basically no-one – then those were two real people who would need additional attention and support.  The case might be relatively improbable on the basis of that statistic, but it was impossible to regard the person in front of you as “improbable” and therefore not needing to be considered.   When I had fifty personal tutees on my lists (though most were shared with another tutor), I used to hope that students would come to me if they needed support, and got into the habit of mentally halving percentages when I heard such statistics and reflecting that those represented [percentage divided by two] people who might well be needing my attention or advice.

In the case of students without smart devices, around five percent is a very small number relative to the other ninety-five.  But again (for those without a mathematical training or a mathematical imagination, like me), it’s worth multiplying that into the capacity of a lecture hall.  A core course, a high attendance early on in the term, and in one of my lectures that could mean fifteen students or more.  It may sound overly precious to wail over the fact that a theoretical fifteen students – who may or may not be paying attention to the lecture at the time – missed out on a particular activity.  This is not the same as ignoring fifteen people in need of pastoral support.  But they aren’t, of course, likely to be entirely random students.  It isn’t that this programme can’t be used by people from Hampshire, or from those whose names contain a “J” and end in two unstressed syllables.  It’s not accessible to those without an expensive piece of kit, and one whose monthly tariff is relatively generous and being paid properly.  Those theoretical fifteen have become fifteen who – for whatever reason – don’t or can’t spend that money.

Another assurance that these technologies were an entirely natural addition to our teaching practice was given via a phrase whose variations are probably familiar to you: “The students are all au fait with this sort of thing.  When I get queries it tends to be from professors, not students, who can’t work out how to use it.”  No statistic attached this time, but another category is slipping in under the radar, of course.  The assumption that “young people” can all operate seamlessly and comfortably in the digital world (often covered by the term “digitial natives”) has come under scrutiny and critique recently.  Maybe I teach in an unusually bookish department (well, certainly I do), but I don’t find that all my students are proficient in every learning technology or computer programme the university uses.  Even if it is true, it’s still not accurate to conflate “young person” with “student”, when something around ten percent of our intake are classified as “mature”.  The advertising, public images and commercial services which surround university students often assume that everyone who attends university is eighteen, has just done their A2s (unless they’ve been travelling for a year) and has no childcare or household responsibilities.  Anyone who works at a university knows this is very far from being the case.

In a profession which needs to become much more diverse, I wonder whether there’s a tendency sometimes to make statements about “young people” which are really about the kind of young people university lecturers and professors tend to come into contact with.  Are the “young people” who are competent with an array of technologies, and confident enough to use them to make calls on their lecturers’ time and attention, in fact an image conjured up by the extended social circle of a particular socioeconomic group?  I wonder if there’s a risk of deciding that “young people” are capable of certain things, and need certain things, based on the people in one’s daughter’s sixth form, or the teenage members of the gym, or the youngsters at the local pub.  This is not to sweep all university lecturers into one monolithic social and economic category (I have learnt a great deal about these issues from those definitely who don’t fall into that category), but to acknowledge that many of their experiences and social networks may give them an instinctive but inaccurate idea of what most “young people” like, and are like.

Thus those fifteen students are now potentially the very students who may already feel marginalized for various reasons.  They may not be financially comfortable enough to buy all the books for a course, and worry about what they’re missing out on, or be unable to come to office hours and optional tutorials because they need to work longer hours.  They may have to restrict their time on campus because of childcare needs or other responsibilities at home, only seeing their peers in lectures and seminars, and so feel that they’re not really part of their student cohort.  They may be surrounded by posters and publications which identify the “real” students as those who go on the Varsity Ski Trip, or serve on the student committees, and feel frustrated that they can’t “get involved” in similar ways.  It’s an unfortunate (or perhaps apt) coincidence that the technology which started this train of thought is designed to allow students to contribute to a lecture and feel that their opinions are being heard.

To the hypothetical fifteen I’ve just sketched, this might reinforce a sense that the institution only cares to hear from those who fit its idea of a typical student, and that their input is not required.  Considering the factors which might affect people’s engagement with the lecture room technology might highlight the ways in which they could already have been regarded as an “unfortunate five percent” in several rounds of decision making before they reach that lecture.  In ways that students from Hampshire, or students with a “J” and two unstressed syllables at the end of their names haven’t.  As I said, this isn’t an attack on a particular technology (which surely has intriguing potential), but a wondering about how we centre certain students’ experience in the way we imagine various spheres of university life, and how that might look like a pattern to those at the other end.