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.

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3 Comments on “How will universities support the next generation student?”

  1. Why would you say that online learning will not replace face to face education? As you have observed in your blog, representation from disadvantaged groups in university is still too low. Cost and flexibility are important inhibitors here. If I suggested that we could achieve 80% of our educational objective at 20% of the cost and hugely improve flexibility of access at the same time, would that not be worth considering as the main form of higher education and leave the expensive sort to the elite.

    We should also be a little skeptical of what we are achieving in higher education. It is not as if we are defending a good system from change.

  2. Isabelle Says:

    Flexible retirement arrangements may also increase diversity in university courses. People may embark on new studies while preparing for retirement, but may need longer to complete them as they will still be at work for part of the time.

    I would agree with you that face to face teaching and learning will remain an important part of the mix — even the Open University includes this rather successfully.

  3. Fred the Dog Says:

    Should we worry about “regretting the absences but not particularly accommodating them”? How about accomodating the people who bother to show up in the first place?

    That said…

    Showing up doesn’t have to be compulsory. Some of the more pedantic lecturers in our system seem to take offence at absence and stick it to the offending parties. Fair enough, if the penalties have been explained in week one.

    Teachers can also learn from absenteeism.Why is it happening? Does it have anything to do with me?

    I suspect that great teachers find themselves, more often than not, teaching in full rooms. The student who stays away could be a lazy sod – or else could be telling you (the teacher) that you’re not very good.


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