Re-imagining university teaching

It is a frequently made comment that while the world around us has changed dramatically over the past 100 years, university teaching has not. You could, so some would say, enter a typical university classroom anywhere in the world and take away more or less the same pedagogical experience you would have had in 1908. I think we need to take such comments with a grain of salt: university classes are now conducted in facilities which, often, are quite different from their Edwardian counterparts, and we have access to (and use) technology that was not even dreamt of back then: bear in mind the ubiquitousness of Powerpoint, for example. And then again, think of all the modularisation and credit transfers and goodness knows what that have transformed the university curriculum.

And yet, there is some truth in the assertion. Behind the façade of innovation lurks a pedagogical dinosaur. The lecturer addressing a mixed-background class attending his module and backing up his or her key arguments with Powerpoint slides may be using new(-ish) technology and may be encountering different assessment methods, but the students will be faced with learning processes that are not that far removed from those of past eras.

I am not suggesting that what we are doing is bad, just that it’s not particularly new. And there is, I think, a curiosity in that: the last 20 years or so have seen an avalanche of new initiatives, new quality monitoring, new technology, new teaching methods, new assessment, new expectations by students; and yet, all this ‘new’ stuff has left only a very small footprint in the history of education, if really any at all. Much of the innovation has been driven by bureaucracy rather than pedagogy, and therefore, perhaps predictably, its intellectual impact has been minor.

But the ingredients are all there for a revolution: we have various pedagogical think tanks, including this significant one in Australia, or this one from Britain. And some individual universities have developed really innovative units to explore the possibility of teaching and learning reform, such as this institute in the University of Hull, or the Teaching and Learning Laboratory in MIT.

I suspect that one of the reasons why the impact of the work of educational researchers and innovators has been so limited is because the regulators seeking reform don’t know what they really want and are overloading the system with procedural requirements that actually inhibit, and occasionally even punish, real intellectual innovation. When that is put alongside the naturally conservative professional instincts of academics, we get nothing very radical in the classroom.

It is therefore time to scale down the procedural quality monitoring a little and to focus much more on learning enhancement and innovation. This requires an open mind on the part of both academics and their leaders and regulators. It is time for that debate to begin properly.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university

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