Today I was putting the final touches on a paper focusing on the professional development opportunities that Canadian institutions of higher education provide to faculty members, and was reminded of the central argument in my recent book: “people involved in online education…need to better understand the needs and experiences of our students… We need to understand students as people, as individuals who have agency, desires, mishaps, dreams, life-changing accidents; as individuals who face the daily minutiae of life; and as people who may even have instructive and insightful ideas about the future of education. The purpose of this book, therefore, is to examine online learning through the lens of student experience and help us narrow our distance from the online students we serve.”

There’s much to say about reading/hearing/watching about other people’s experiences of being a student. It can be powerful. But actually experiencing being a student – not “back when I was a student,” but in the present – can be instrumental in recognizing, truly recognizing, what it is like to face the decisions that faculty and institutions make for you. Decisions such as whether your course is synchronous or not; whether you need to buy expensive textbooks or not; whether you need to engage in collaborative learning activities; and so on. I was also reminded of this today because I read Martin Weller’s post where he writes the following: “there would be a lot to be gained in experiencing the online provision from a student’s perspective. I genuinely think that intrusive exam proctoring for instance would be less readily adopted if staff had to experience it.”

Inside Higher Ed’s 2019 Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology notes that faculty who had various experiences with online courses reported encouraging outcomes: more than 60% of faculty who converted a face-to-face course to an online or hybrid course reported that their online courses included “decreased lecture time and increased use of active learning techniques;” more than 75% of those who have taught online courses reported that the experience “helped them develop pedagogical skills and practices that have improved their teaching…[including in helping them think] more critically about ways to engage students with content.”

This is not to say that experiencing something will necessarily enable one to experience it from the subject position of others. To put it in terms of an example: Sure, I can take a test using proctoring software, but my education doesn’t depend on it, my degree and perceived future aren’t dependent on how I do on an exam.

What’s the takeaway here? Perhaps it boils down to something simple, something about experiencing it yourself before expecting others to do so. Or perhaps something about the authenticity of professional development, and striving to make those experiences as authentic as can be. Or, perhaps, this is a critique of the endless array of educational technology products whose developers never quite experience the tech not just as a student, but as a student who is facing different realities that them. It’s probably all of this, and then some.