Meeting students face to face – but how?
About a year ago when I took part in a discussion about higher education reform one non-university participant kept asking us about ‘contact hours’. How many of these would a student experience, and what preparations would be needed. It’s one of those questions that you cannot answer satisfactorily, because there is no single answer. It depends on the discipline, and on the lecturer, and on the learning technologies now being developed. But in the end I offered the information that, when I still taught, on average I had eight or so class contact hours per week. Overall a student might have anything between eight and sixteen weekly contact hours in my subject area.
My friend was shocked, truly shocked. What did the students do the rest of the time? Did they feel cheated? Was the taxpayer being cheated? What should be done, and quickly? I suggested to him that he was looking at universities as if they were just slightly more advanced secondary schools. Yes, he said, ‘what’s wrong with that?’
Of course one of the key objectives of higher education is to stimulate independent learning, and it is expected that a lot of this goes on outside of the formal teaching sessions. But what was shocking my friend was that, if this was so, we seemed to be detaching ourselves from the students and their direct needs. I explained to him that this was going to change further, dramatically, and that it might not involve more contact hours. Demographics and technology, I suggested, would require very different teaching methods.
I think my friend was thoroughly unconvinced. But in the course of the conversation it struck me how little he knew about higher education and how it really worked. Is it time for the universities to open up a bit more and to explain what we are and what we do, and what benefits the citizens derive? We must explain that the very negative views sometimes expressed about higher education are not reasonable. We must set out a public vision of universities and so begin to change the nature of the debate.