How will universities support the next generation student?
When I began my career as a university lecturer, my first class consisted of students who all shared the same characteristics: they were school leavers embarking on full-time undergraduate studies. If I were to take the equivalent class today, they would be much more diverse. Many of them would, technically, be in full time employment alongside their studies; some would be school leavers, but a growing number would be mature or second-chance students. At least some (though not enough) would come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
The question now is whether our higher education system adequately recognises and caters for this much greater diversity. One consequence of the changed profile of the typical student is that many of them no longer attend all of their lectures and classes; it is not uncommon in the university system to find fewer than half the students present in the lecture theatre. But on the whole the university community grits its teeth and carries on as before, regretting the absences but not particularly accommodating them.
The first thing to understand is that we cannot return to the past; student diversity is here to stay and will grow. But there are things we can do to ensure that students get the maximum benefit from their studies. We can be more flexible in how and when we run classes. And we can make much more use still of new learning technology. Studies in America have shown that new online delivery tools allow students to ‘perform better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.’ While elearning will not replace real time lectures and tutorials, its use in distance education and as part of blended learning will help to generate more commitment amongst both academics and students.
Particularly in the light of severe budgetary pressures, it may be time to stop doing more and more traditional education with seriously declining resources. It is time to harness the pedagogical benefits of new technology and of new learning methods.