When is a student not a student?
The University of Edinburgh is procuring and developing an online service to support short courses for non-matriculated learners. What is someone taking one of these courses entitled to? And what should they be called?
Edinburgh is one of only a handful of Higher Education providers who still offer short courses to the general public. The offering includes in-person courses through the Centre for Open Learning, online offerings from several Schools, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) delivered through three MOOC platform partners, Coursera, EdX and FutureLearn. The University is also able to provide bespoke training courses for commercial partners.
The new service will include a portal for advertising the short courses and managing behind-the-scenes processes such as enrollment, along with a new virtual learning environment that, for courses that are not delivered on the MOOC platforms, best meets the requirements for non-matriculated learners. Matriculated students will continue to use the Learn virtual learning environment, and staff training will continue to be accessed through the People and Money system.
What is the difference, in practice, between those matriculated on a degree programme and those registered on a short course? It manifests mainly in entitlements to the University’s facilities. Short coursers will have access to their course materials on the new learning platform, and only very limited and managed access to any other University facilities as needed. The Centre for Open Learning, for example, arranges access to specific classrooms at specific times for in-person teaching delivery but a non-matriculated learner does not by default receive a University Card or email address or have access to the Library or secure University wifi. There are a variety of reasons for this, not least of which is that services are often purchased by or licensed to the University based on the number of matriculated students and staff of the University.
There’s an implication for content creation and delivery, which is that learning materials will generally not be able to include resources from closed spaces within the University. The journal might be available through the Library but if it’s not licensed for short course learners then it won’t be available to them. Open resources are going to be key.
There are also implications for the agreement between the University and the short course learner. This will be a different agreement to the degree programme student contract, but it will be important to resolve, for example, the extent to which University policy that applies to a [matriculated] ‘student’ can or should also apply to short course learners.
Students and learners
So should we call the short coursers ‘learners’ or ‘students’? The Centre for Open Learning consistently refer to their ‘students’, whereas within Information Services it’s been customary to distinguish ‘learners’ from ‘students’ for distance learning at scale courses, MOOCs and other courses where the majority of online material is free but payment is taken for the final capstone learning and certificate or badge.
Let’s indulge my fascination with etymology, and start with some terms. We can discount immediately the relatively narrow pupil (from Latin pupillus, meaning orphan or ward) where the connotation is of the teacher as carer for the learner as well as teaching them, hence the term is not often used much beyond primary education. ‘Pupils’ might be considered as a subset of students (from Old French estudiant, one who studies, in turn from Latin studiare, to study). The original connotation of studiare is to strive towards something and so ‘student’ might best be used to refer to someone following a curriculum or learning a discipline.
…finding or following a track.
The word learner (from Old English leornian, to get knowledge, study or think about) may originally have had a connotation of finding or following a track, and is yet more general. As well as encompassing ‘pupil’ and ‘student’, it can describe someone more self-directed in their choice of what to learn, and where they may be sampling from potentially quite disparate knowledge or skill acquisition sources that may not obviously align with each other.
So I was once a primary school pupil and another time a student of IT at Masters’ level and am currently learning Spanish online and stage direction by trial and error. Our short course learners? Hmm. They are taking a course as part of pursuing their own learning track. It doesn’t fit neatly.
Term of endearing
So shall we refer to “learners”, or to “non-matriculated students”? How does the term used to describe the short course learners affect how they view their status within the University? Will it affect their view of how much they matter to the University, their learner experience? (And, by drawing attention to the distinction, are we in some way reinforcing the idea of degree study as the extension of [boarding] school? Maybe not in any important way.) Yet we should be clear and consistent.
If we call them short course ‘learners’ then we should at least be able to create a clear distinction, at the risk of creating a confusing jargon. If we call them ‘students’ (or if we fudge the issue and don’t call them anything) then there is the risk of creating confusion with degree programme students and of the short course participants reading in an expectation of access to facilities that the University doesn’t intend providing.
Might we rigorously use the phrase ‘short course student’? This may require reviewing a lot of University policy to check if we need to specify where the term ‘student’ in it does or doesn’t apply to ‘short course students’. Or might the right balance be to use the term ‘learner’ but to do so sparingly when addressing the learners and prospective learners themselves?
Image: Atypical Welcome by Quinn Dombrowski 2011 CC BY-SA (flickr)