Posted tagged ‘learning’

What exactly is teaching?

March 12, 2018

My generation of academic has learned to expect a constant re-assessment of what it is we actually do once we are in the classroom, or indeed during any moment of our professional activities. We used to say pretty confidently that we were ‘teaching’. During the late 1980s and into the 1990s it became absolutely necessary to describe classroom engagement as ‘teaching and learning’, which in some cases became ‘learning and teaching’. A more recent expert view has been that what academics do is ‘facilitate a learning environment’.

As we have recently seen in England, teaching (or teaching and learning, or whatever you prefer) is now seen by some as a contractual activity that promises (or at least may promise) particular outcomes, including reputation and career. This perspective of teaching as outcome-driven bargain sits uneasily with the idea of self-motivated and ‘facilitated’ learning favoured in much contemporary pedagogy.

There are lots of things we have, as a profession, never really decided. Do we still need lectures (given the widespread availability of virtually all information online)? Should all teaching now be in small groups? What are students entitled to expect or indeed demand from institutions and their faculty?

However all of this is resolved, let us hope it is not in the courts, because that is probably the least good way of settling these questions of contemporary higher education.


Texting the course

March 19, 2013

Here’s a phenomenon I hope doesn’t catch on: I recently talked in an airport departure lounge with a student (studying at another university) who told me that his entire knowledge for the forthcoming exams came from mobile phone texts that his girlfriend, who was apparently a more conscientious attender of classes, had sent him summarising the syllabus. He had attended no lectures or tutorials. He had read no books. He had her texts. I hope, really hope, that he was pulling my leg, but I fear he wasn’t. He had, it seemed, the ultimate ‘textbook’, and he was quite confident that he could pass. I never even got to asking him how he had handled essays and assignments, that question occurred to me too late.

But the extreme nature of this particular study technique perhaps illustrates a broader issue. The conventional textbook sold for an outrageous price by a small band of publishers is, one hopes, on the way out. The internet in particular is undermining their business model, and we’ll be none the worse for that. In one interesting development, an American community college now runs a course that uses only open source material, and the students therefore do not need to buy anything. The college calculates that this saves each student $2,000 per annum.

For many lecturers the textbook was a comforting prop, providing them with course materials that needed no assembling. For students, such books were often profoundly anti-intellectual, suggesting to them (even where that was not the authors’ intention) that there is a ‘correct’ answer to every question, even highly theoretical ones. However, it is important that what replaces them is not just smartly digital, but is also part of a genuine introduction to real scholarship. I suspect that the post-textbook course materials handed out or made available on online learning platforms such as Blackboard or Moodle are often unimaginative and as prescriptive as the old textbooks – though of course there are also many examples of genuinely good practice.

New technology has freed the universities and colleges from the clutches of publishing cartels. But that must lead to something more profound than a narrow range of online materials; or your girlfriend’s mobile phone texts.

The bureaucratisation of learning

February 21, 2012

In 1988 the American Historical Association celebrated its 100th anniversary. At the conference held to mark the event one of the speakers, the distinguished historian Theodore S. Hamerow, reflected on the many advances and achievements witnessed over the century, but then concluded that all was not well; he identified what he described as a ‘broad cultural process by which scholarship in the course of he 20th century became bureaucratised and rigidified in institutions of higher education’. Part of that had come about, he suggested, by the growth of ‘disciplines’ and the methods they used to protect their integrity, and partly by a bureaucratisation of learning.

In fact in 1989 the bureaucratisation of learning had hardly even started. Over the years that followed quality assurance processes, research assessment and other tools for developing transparency and standards could legitimately be said to have created anti-intellectual impulses in the academic system. The concept of ‘learning outcomes’ is a good example: a concept that completely misunderstands the process of learning by assuming that when you dress inputs as outputs something profound will happen. Learning should engage and stimulate the learner, and the result may (and in an ideal world will) be something unexpected. Learning outcomes are a tool to subvert that experience and suggest that the scholar’s mind can only go one particular way.

What has been happening is that we have tried to suggest that scholarship and learning, at their best, should be predictable, or that standardisation of learning is more important than originality of thought. If we go on this way it will not end well. It is time to reconceptualise education.

Qualifying higher education

August 15, 2011

No educator likes this kind of talk, but if we were to accept for a moment and for the sake of argument that universities are selling something, what is it? Although it is very hard to identify the real nature of the transaction or exchange, we do know that we get money (whether in sufficient quantity or otherwise), and we know that we undertake an activity connected with that payment. But if someone is buying something, who is that someone and what are they buying?

There are several possible answers to this question, but let us now assume that the purchaser is the student (which is increasingly true in a number of countries). Would the student believe that his or her tuition fee is paying for an education, or would they maybe say it is for a qualification? In  other words, if the university invited students to take a programme of study but declined to offer any formal qualification at the end, would the students still come? Or at least, would so many of them?

In some ways the educational bureaucracy has long made the assumption that the qualification is what the bargain is all about, ever since the quality assurance movement got under way. That movement assumes that the ‘quality question’ of higher education is whether the educational process, leading to a degree or diploma, was correctly administered and is consistent across the higher education sector. But that is not a question about pedagogy (or arguably even about educational standards): it is a question about the consistency, transparency and efficiency of outputs.

I am not suggesting that quality assurance mechanisms are bad (though when badly administered, they are). Rather, I am reminding myself (and others if they are interested) that we have become rightly concerned to monitor how educational institutions fulfil their mission, but that we ask surprisingly few questions about the real nature of learning and what it entails. We are sucked into process, but not into experience. As a result the gold standard of higher education is the exit qualification, and graduates can take that to their new employers and often need not worry whether they will be able to explain anything they have learned.

It is time to look again at education in a context other than its formal elements of delivery and assessment. It is time for us to be clearer about what we want education to do. And I really would prefer not to be told that it’s just there for its own sake.

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.

Good teaching is about passion

June 27, 2011

When I was a law student in the 1970s, we had one lecturer whose teaching was simply appalling. He sat while lecturing (with no physical reasons for doing so). He never looked at the class. He never asked questions, rhetorical or otherwise. He never encouraged analysis. His delivery was monotonous. He never showed or used humour. He never varied the content of his lectures from year to year. In examining, he rewarded (and therefore got) the uncritical regurgitation of his own views. He was a kind of icon of pedagogical awfulness.

What made this particular lecturer so terrible was that he seemed to have no passion of any kind for his subject, or for the topics that he covered. His teaching, if it was that, was simply something that got him from the beginning to the end of the lecture, and from the beginning to the end of the academic year. It had no purpose other than that of filling an allotted slot in the syllabus. This kind of emotional disengagement is however contagious. A lecturer who shows no real interest or spirit stirs up similar apathy amongst their students. Despite that, some of them will base their careers on the topic in question, and will become another generation of the disengaged.

All subjects, if they are worth teaching, are worth getting excited about. When I was a PhD student in Cambridge, I occasionally amused myself by attending the lectures of a Botany lecturer who had this extraordinarily infectious enthusiasm for his subject. I knew nothing about the subject, but I loved the passion he showered on it.

There are many things that make a lecturer good. Charles L. Brewer, Professor of Psychology in Furman University, in a well known address in 2005 on the Joy of Teaching, stated that he had always ‘tried to teach with passion, preparation, parsimony, perseverance, and patience.’ I would suggest that the greatest of these is passion.

Of the classroom, but not in it

February 2, 2011

Recently I delivered an address to a group of students. My talk took 25 minutes, and after that there were questions and answers. Nothing unusual, you might say. Except perhaps that I was sitting at my desk in my study at home, and the students were several hundred miles away in a university classroom. My image was transmitted to them via my webcam. It was, in a strange sort of way, highly unusual and highly normal. I had my cup of coffee by my side, and at one point when the students’ lecturer needed to cover some procedural aspects with them I was able to walk over to the window and look out at my garden. When I wanted to refer to a book I have on my shelves I was able to step over and get it.

Was it as good as being there, or even better? Or was it not the same thing at all? Well, all of those things. And I wonder what it would have been like if one of the students had also not been present and had been beamed in via Skype or the like. Because, as I have just read, that may also now be happening with increasing frequency. According to an article in the US Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 per cent of American professors have experimented with this and have, on occasion, allowed students to participate in a class via a computer connection.

It may be tempting to think that this sort of thing is where we are headed, given the increasing sophistication of the technology. Indeed, classes where nobody (lecturer or students) is in the same location are also now available in many distance learning programmes, but in a way that is different because that’s what the product is. But how far should virtual attendance be allowed in programmes that are supposed to be classroom based in real time? Or is the concept of such physical presence now itself out-dated?

These are hard questions to answer. For all sorts of reasons we must expect and indeed prepare for learning and teaching that is not tied to location. But on the other hand, there are still reasons for believing that a classroom experience in which everyone is present has a special pedagogical value. Teaching technology will continue to advance, and we must continue to consider how far it should go.

Living with outcomes

November 18, 2010

Recently I was having a conversation with a small group of academics from different universities. One of them began to talk about course materials he was working on, and in particular about ‘learning outcomes’ he was having to identify as part of that; and so the conversation turned to the usefulness or otherwise of this way of looking at things. After a little while, the consensus amongst the group was that identifying ‘learning outcomes’ was essentially a bureaucratic exercise with no intrinsic pedagogical value.

So is that a fair comment? Well, I cannot really speak from experience, because I stopped being an active lecturer before learning outcomes emerged as a concept. The person who is often credited with this way of looking at education is the Australian sociologist William G. Spady. In 1995 he published a book entitled Outcome-Based Education: Critical Issues and Answers. Essentially his argument was that the success of education should be based on outputs rather than inputs, and he explained his concept as follows:

‘Outcome-Based Education means clearly focusing and organizing everything in an educational system around what is essential for all students to be able to do successfully at the end of their learning experiences. This means starting with a clear picture of what is important for students to be able to do, then organizing curriculum, instruction and assessment to make sure this learning ultimately happens.’

Therefore, rather than identifying the ingredients of a subject and arranging the syllabus in such a way as to communicate these, outcome-based learning asks what we want the student to know or be able to do, and works backwards from that. This, it is thought, makes learning more student focused and allows society’s expectations of learning to be factored into the design of the teaching.

There are also criticisms of this approach: that it standardises learning because the outcome does not derive from the needs or expectations of any actual student, but rather from what we want a hypothetical student to achieve; and because we cannot assume this hypothetical student to be all brilliant, learning outcomes identified may have to be quite modest. And if we need to tick too many outcomes boxes (if you will excuse the horrible cliché), some of these will be excessively vague and fuzzy.

So for example, I have been looking at random at ‘learning outcomes’ published by various universities for particular programmes, and they are full of things like this (all examples taken from actual materials): ‘the students will be able to synthesize knowledge’; or ‘the students will be able to apply knowledge and understanding and cognitive skills to the solution of problems’; or ‘students will be able to use strong communication and organizational skills’. Where the outcomes become more specific, they often switch to what are not really ‘outcomes’ at all, like: ‘at graduation, students will have covered literature (including genres and history), and language and linguistics’; the latter ‘outcomes’ are what the teacher will be teaching, i.e. these are inputs.

It seems to me that new ways of planning, executing and assessing learning are good, and looking at what we expect to emerge from the teaching and learning cannot be bad. But I am unconvinced that we always understand what the significance of learning outcomes might be, and in such cases the default position is to bureaucratise everything and simply turn it into a process that faculty must follow in order to satisfy formal requirements. But then again, maybe I am missing something.

Let me entertain you!

July 21, 2010

In his song ‘Let me entertain you’, the singer Robbie Williams suggests that his audience is ‘tired of teachers’ and that ‘school’s a drag’; his remedy is to invite them to be entertained. And of course, entertainment is the idiom of the age, the platform from which a good deal of communication (of even quite serious matters) is disseminated. Entertainment is no longer just diversion from the serious business of life, it is the mainstream.

So it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that an analysis of the qualities that English students seek in their lecturers has revealed that ‘edutainment’ comes high on the list: higher than care for students, and assessment and feedback (though not as high as ‘great teaching’). This goes alongside the trend by which students increasingly use social networking site Facebook as their preferred medium of communication in academic matters.

And in fact, the idea that good teaching should also entertain is not new to me. Letcurers are performers, and one of their tasks is the find methods of communication that get the message across and stimulate the audience into active participation. A good lecture should have something of the music hall about it. But while this comes naturally to some academics, it is quite alien to others. And in any case, entertainment is a skill that needs to be taught and learned.

So I suspect that the academy needs to become serious about entertainment, and to make it part of the methodology of learning. In particular, we need to resist the temptation to see entertainment as cheap and boredom as noble.

Congestion on the information highway?

December 20, 2009

Exactly 30 years ago today, a great disaster nearly overwhelmed me. I was at the time a postgraduate student in Cambridge University, working on my PhD. I had agreed to deliver a paper at a conference scheduled to take place there in mid-January; when I accepted this invitation, I had calculated that I would have some time over the Christmas break (while allowing for a few days off for the actual Christmas celebrations) to do my background work, read relevant articles and books, and do a first draft. So on December 20th I was ready to make a start. Or actually no, I wasn’t: because the library which had all of the materials I wanted closed that day, not to re-open until January 4th – which was far too late for the purposes of working on my paper. I remember having a sudden panic attack, as I could not see how I was going to be able to do the work in these circumstances. And so for the next two weeks or so I was a bundle of nerves, wondering whether I would be able to prepare a good paper for this prestigious event, my first ever conference presentation.

In the end I was fine, and while I had to forego sleep for a few nights before the conference, the re-opened library provided me with my materials I needed and my paper, even if I say so myself, was not at all bad. But what I have just described would be hard to understand for anyone in the same position today. Yes, a closed library is an inconvenience, but not a crisis. Instead, they would now be able to settle down at their computer and access pretty much everything they would need online, day or night, Christmas Day or any other day of the year.

Or is it that simple? Might it be said that there is now simply too much online information available to today’s researchers? And more significantly, is it becoming impossible to distinguish easily between genuine scholarship and online rubbish? And even if you can securely identify the gems, are there not just too many of them ‘out there’ to enable a worthwhile assessment of which ones are most relevant or best suited to the immediate project?

In the most recent issue of Times Higher Education, Professor Tara Brabazon of Brighton University argues that the information mountain available on the internet does not need to be a serious problem. Referring to one of her students, who had confided that she experienced ‘intellectual paralysis when confronted by the information choices’, Professor Brabazon concluded:

‘If she closed Facebook after a designated 30 minutes a day, constructed daily learning goals and followed the recommendations of teachers and librarians while monitoring citations of important authors via Google Scholar, her information environment would become less threatening and chaotic. There would be no metaphoric Mars Bar calling her name. Instead, she would develop experience in planning and organising her intellectual environment through expertise, refereeing and differentiating between leisure and learning, time passing and time management.’

Is that really the right advice? I cannot help feeling that the learning experience needs to be more emancipated than that. What Professor Brabazon appears to me to be suggesting is that you can overcome the fear of information overload by being methodical and taking instructions from your teachers. But the whole point of independent learning is to be able to find your own way to reliable data and analysis that is available to you and to use that in an innovative way. Having a routine framework and instructions handed down by your elders and betters does not seem to me to be the way to do this.

But then again, the academy has been through the concept of information explosion before. Back in the Middle Ages Professor Brabazon’s student would not have been struggling with information overload, she would have been struggling to come up with anything reliable or even just anything at all. The nearest monastery library would probably have provided the best and maybe only source. Then came the printing press, and suddenly there were books and pamphlets on absolutely anything, and almost immediately voices emerged saying it was all just unreliable stuff, and if a monk didn’t have to write it by hand on pigskin and add some beautiful illustrations it really couldn’t be worth anything. But the scholarly community quickly discovered how to handle the new information volume and in fact use it to enormous effect; and we are beginning to do the same with the internet.

I remember that when I was at school, another pupil once expressed a concern to a teacher that there were too many items for reading included in a homework assignment and that he didn’t know where to start. ‘Sharpen your pencils and sit up straight, read my instructions and then have a go’ was the rather opaque and (I think) utterly useless reply.  So let us not suggest to students that the universality of information requires a methodical application of your instructor’s rules. Yes, they must acquire and be familiar with information sifting tools, including Google; but they must also be willing to pursue less obvious paths and to try that which no-one is recommending just then. Learning must be something of an adventure, as well as the application of a method.

In fact, the only thing to fear is that, on December 20th, your library may close and a new virus will shut down the internet, just 14 days before you have to deliver your paper. Everything else is a piece of cake.