Posted tagged ‘learning innovation’

The key to better teaching and learning: securing student participation

July 2, 2011

A recurring theme in many of the conversations I have these days with higher education teachers is how difficult they find it to get students to participate in class. Students attend less class-based activities anyway, it is often observed, and when they are there they tend to see it as an occasion to receive information and ideas in a purely passive way.

On the other hand, it is clear that successful teaching requires a high level of interaction. So here are two contributions to this issue.

The first is a project from Monash University that used technology, in the form of a ‘computerised audience response system’, at relatively low cost to stimulate student interest and encourage them to work with the subject being taught.

The second is a set of suggestions from the University of California in Berkeley to prompt interaction in classes.

Perhaps an overall goal in good teaching that secures student participation should be to introduce innovation and change regularly. Learning needs to be presented as intellectual innovation, and the approach of the teacher should also reflect that. Otherwise it is difficult to engage students and maintain their interest.

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Using space in higher education

April 21, 2010

Guest blog by Dr Perry Share
Head of Department of Humanities at the Institute of Technology, Sligo

What does it mean to talk about the ‘efficient’ use of university space? What is the ‘social’ in ‘social learning’? What is the appropriate student response to a room full of bean bags? What is the role of the university in the 21st century?

These were some of the intriguing issues that arose at the one-day ‘Learning Landscapes in Higher Education’ conference at the Queen Mary campus of the University of London on 13 April 2010. The conference was organised as a keystone event for the research project of the same name, a collaborative initiative of 12 UK higher education institutions funded by the Higher Education Funding Councils in England, Scotland and Wales. A summary report and further materials can be found at the project website and will repay careful study by any person interested in the spaces (real or virtual) in which third-level education happens.

The conference was mainly aimed at Estate Managers who, along with some curious academics (including your correspondent), made up the bulk of the audience. Despite the acknowledged importance of student consultation in the process of developing teaching and learning spaces, only one such person was present – and she was completing a PhD on the topic! Estate managers, drawn from the ranks of surveyors, engineers, architects, builders and, increasingly, ‘facilities managers’,  are those whose responsibility it is to keep our third level settings running smoothly – embracing everything from car parking (the issue that seemingly unites both academics and students worldwide), heating and ventilation, security to signage. Many of these tasks are, perhaps rightly, almost invisible to those who learn and work in universities and colleges.

Estate managers are also involved in the redevelopment of teaching and learning spaces, whether in the ‘masterplanning’ of whole sites; the evaluation of existing buildings; refurbishment; or even demolition and rebuilding. In Ireland we are seeing some major initiatives – in Belfast the moving of the UU campus from Jordanstown to the city and, in the south, the shift of Dublin Institute of Technology to the new Grangegorman campus. These are major and exciting projects and at the conference I met people involved in both of them.

Irish and UK third level institutions alike face a similar range of issues in relation to space and its contexts: many familiar to readers of this blog. There is a financial crisis and an apparent lack of public or political interest in the fate of the sector. Student numbers are increasing as are the demands on space. Add in technological change (aka the Internet and mobile telephony), new modes of learning (student-centred, research-focused) and changing student demographics. Top this off with the desire of enterprising universities to produce ‘iconic’ buildings to advertise their presence in the global education market, and you have a challenging set of questions. These are not limited to the provision of extra classrooms, bigger and better-equipped lecture theatres or swishier nanotechnology labs.

Rather, the issues that exercised the speakers at the conference, and which are explored at length in the research, cut to the quick of the educational exercise. How do students want to learn today, how do we want to work with them to achieve those ends, and how can we best make or remake physical spaces to encourage the sort of activity and reflection that is going to be of value? There is a major shift in the thinking about teaching and learning towards a more participatory, more social, less didactic and less formal style of university teaching and learning. Active research activity is being introduced into the undergraduate system and groupwork is encouraged.

How do the designers of teaching spaces respond? In some cases not at all. But the research points to numerous examples of innovative spaces such as the Teaching Grid at the University of Warwick, or S@il at the University of Reading. These initiatives involve a lot more than buying a few bean bags, installing electronic whiteboards or putting in coffee vending machines. At their best they reflect a rethinking of how education is done. Speakers at the conference reflected on the irony of talking about this educational revolution in a classicly didactic 1930s lecture theatre with steeply tiered seating and, touchingly, a blackboard. But they all referred in different ways to the fundamental challenge of responding to new theories about how to teach and how to reflect this in spatial design. The response must be more than a metaphorical one – it must help to produce, perhaps with little or no money, spaces that can actively support and encourage active and educationally appropriate responses to the new challenges that we face. On a flying visit to Portsmouth University’s Centre for Enterprise I saw an innovative teaching space that had cost all of £400 to fit out!

Echoing the seminal work of 1960s urban theorist Jane Jacobs, the message that came across clearly to me was the need to invest spaces with complexity and emotion. Those who use spaces in our universities and colleges need to feel connected to them, to like them and to feel some level of control over them. It may be easy to achieve complexity in the multi-layered fabric of an ancient university, with its endless iterations of buildings and the quirky remnants of the past . Far more difficult to inject a degree of soul into ‘new build’. How many of the many new Irish educational buildings bequeathed to us by the Celtic Tiger can genuinely said to be loved by their users; how many excite real creativity; how many genuinely facilitate more open, democratic and collaborative modes of learning? The debate opened up by the Learning Landscapes project in the UK is one that all members of the academic communities in Ireland need to engage in.

Modular universities

December 9, 2008

When I was a student – and indeed, when I was first a university lecturer – universities in these islands (and, I believe, in much of the English-speaking world) all had a similar academic year: it was structured into three ‘terms’, each with typically between eight and ten weeks. The basic teaching unit was a year-long course, which would be examined at the end of the academic year, usually in a written examination which alone would account for the marks on which student progression would be decided. Through the 1980s it became more common to allow some non-examination assessment, but on the whole this remained the standard approach.

However, there was always some awareness that in other countries this was not the norm. European universities had an academic year of two semesters – indeed, not really an academic year, since the semester was the basic unit of progression. American universities also had semesters, but arranged slightly differently.

The first university in these islands to adopt a semester-based framework was Stirling, which from its foundation in the 1960s had a different view of how student learning and progression should be arranged. From its opening  in 1967, Stirling offered students modular programmes, under which students had to build up ‘credits’ in order to qualify for graduation, and these credits were awarded for the successful completion of a ‘module’; the modules were the ‘courses’ offered to students, and within certain guidelines students could put together their own menu of modules leading to their degree.

On the whole the Stirling model was frowned upon by most universities, and the suspicion was often voiced that this approach to teaching amounted to a ‘dumbing down’ of university study. It didn’t help that in Britain the other early adopters were polytechnics. However, by the 1990s some universities began to look favourably on modularisation, with the University of East Anglia and Bristol University being among the first. And by the end of the 1990s semesterisation and modularisation had become a tidal wave in Britain, sweeping along the overwhelming majority of institutions. At the time I was a Professor at the University of Hull, and in the mid-1990s we semesterised and modularised. It would be fair to say that there was a lot of scepticism in the academic community, not least because those who pushed for the introduction were sometimes very bad at explaining why it should be done, beyond pointing to the fact that everyone else was doing it.

Indeed that was one of the problems of the 1990s wave of modularisation: because it was so often championed by university senior managements and resisted by many academics, it was often poorly designed, minimalist in intent and reach, and often quite simply the old model squeezed into new units. Very often universities found themselves unable to handle the internal budgetary consequences of real modularisation (where students could make flexible portfolio choices) and so restricted it to such an extent that the real purpose was lost. by the late 1990s in Hull, almost no academic would admit to having been in favour of the introduction of modularisation, and I believe this was not an untypical scenario.

The current decade has seen some new thinking, and in many universities modularisation was re-engineered, this time with the proper pedagogical analysis and therefore with much more dynamic effect. My university now, Dublin City University, also modularised in the 1990s, but only recently have we undertaken a thorough analysis of what a revitalised modular structure could produce, and how it could provide both deep learning and flexible choices. The outcome of this analysis was DCU’s Academic Framework for Innovation, which is gradually being rolled out at this point. Similar reviews and reforms are also being undertaken or contemplated in other universities.

The reason why modularisation became so pervasive but also was initially introduced in such an unsatisfactory manner was perhaps because the academic community was willing to accept that there might be a more innovative way to acquire and assess knowledge, but was given inadequate opportunities to explore that and ensure that any reform reflected the insights gained. When modular degree programmes were introduced in dozens of universities in the 1990s it was an extraordinarily rushed job, and was in the end treated as an exercise in academic organisation rather than an exploration of knowledge and its nature and potential. It was, in my view, the right thing to do, but almost everywhere it was done quite badly. Even now, I would not be certain whether, in many universities, academics would not vote for a return to the old systems of terms.

We cannot really go back, but we must get it right. We must ensure that students have a learning experience that grounds them in the basic knowledge and analysis that they need for the area of study they have chosen, and also that they have the opportunity to make flexible choices that will bring them into direct contact with cognate or relevant disciplines; and we must ensure that we assess their knowledge and achievements in an appropriate manner that is both demanding and open to intellectual innovation. Overall, the academy still has some way to go before we have got this right – though I also believe that, in DCU, we have now made a strong start.