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.

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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.