Posted tagged ‘pedagogy’

EdTech: something so important nobody is talking about it. Yet.

April 9, 2018

A couple of years ago I suggested in an interview that university education had, in its basic methodology, hardly changed since the Middle Ages. I was of course being deliberately provocative and was exaggerating my argument, but nevertheless I did believe that I was making a valid point. Over the next few days I was met with howls of indignation, some of them in public and in print, from colleagues in other institutions who said my assertions were ludicrous; and who listed the zillions of things that had changed in universities since Thomas Aquinas had paced the lecture rooms of the University of Paris in 1250. Certainly he wasn’t holding an iPad as he paced, and he was never having to address the attentions of the Quality Assurance Agency. He might even have been quite unable to explain the nature and purpose of a MOOC. You get the idea.

None of that of course was my point, and me being me, I probably expressed myself badly. I certainly wasn’t out to insult anyone, as I have nothing but respect for those who labour in the vineyards of academia, and who do not get the recognition they deserve. What I was trying to convey was that we were using the same pedagogical understanding of our educational process as in the Middle Ages, and that while we may have adopted various new methods of communication and technology, these did not change our understanding of what was involved in teaching and learning. I don’t believe that even the adoption of ‘learning outcomes’ changes the game fundamentally.

So what we have, mostly, is a new technological portfolio sitting on top of traditional pedagogy. But because the technology is now so ground-breakingly different, it is becoming more and more important to have a proper insight into how disruptive this can be. The thinking that has emerged so far, usually contained under the heading of EdTech (which however covers education at all levels, not just higher education), has tended to be driven more by industry than by academia. More interestingly, it has become an increasingly fertile terrain for entrepreneurs and start-ups. Now interest by governments is emerging, and with it the potential for some funding; though it is not at all clear yet where that funding will actually go.

It has been a recurrent theme of this blog that we need much deeper thinking on pedagogy. This is as true in EdTech as anywhere else; but it should be a call to universities to take that on and accept the potential benefits of technology that may disrupt our traditional understanding of education; and to own the policy ideas that underpin it.

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Pedagogy, or just technology?

November 18, 2014

MIT News, the website that publishes news items from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is consistently worth reading, both so as to follow what MIT is up to, and for quick insights into some really interesting topics addressed in the university’s teaching or research.

This does not mean of course that MIT always gets it right. One item on the website recently caught my attention, but its main arguments don’t particularly persuade me. It presents some thoughts on the future of university education by one of its Mechanical Engineering faculty, Professor Sanjay Sarma.

Professor Sarma asks ‘what a college education will look like in 10 years’, and then paints a picture of an IT-dominated experience in which students’ work is (apparently) graded automatically and in which the largely online menu will, for any subject, possibly include video games. This particular vision is explained as focusing on student interaction and participation, but seems on the other hand to offer few settings in which such interaction could play out. Professor Sarma appears to think that MOOCs will be the main influence on future degree courses.

There is absolutely no doubt that new technology will play a big role in higher education in future; and indeed that is a good thing. It is also clear that students will learn differently, and at different times, and at different stages of their lives; also, all good. It is well worth asking whether traditional lectures will still be a key teaching platform – something which I doubt. But I would equally suggest that universities must not abandon the social side of learning, and the building of a student community in which learning comes from student peers as much as from professors. All-round automated processes will not easily produce such environments.

Technology is here to stay, and is a hugely important tool. But it should support, and not replace, real pedagogy.

Finding the right ratio

June 17, 2014

One of the key performance indicators that influence university rankings and attract comment is the student-staff ratio. In almost every assessment of higher education there is an assumption that a smaller number of students supported by a larger number of academic faculty  is better for quality, student support and educational outcomes. That position has been underlined again by the new President of University College Dublin (UCD), Professor Andrew Deeks, who has said in one of his first public statements since taking up the post that Irish universities’ student-staff ratios are ‘considerably out of line’ when compared with international benchmarks. He was expressing concern that higher education funding in Ireland may not be sufficient to secure the resources needed to maintain quality. A similar comment had previously been made by the Provost of Trinity College Dublin, Dr Paddy Prendergast.

The student-staff ratio in Ireland is 19:1. This is higher than that found in some competitor countries, but is that important? Do we actually know what the appropriate or optimum ratio is? Should we assume that the lowest is the best, and that it should be 1:1?

I have great sympathy with those who argue for more faculty to provide a quality experience for students, but I don’t myself know whether we have any really robust evidence of what the right figure is. Nor have we really asked whether changes in pedagogy, or in teaching and learning technology, or in demographics, should have any impact on this figure. So for example, a very low ratio would create such extraordinary costs that it would become possible to provide university places for a small minority of the population only. A very high ratio on the other hand would make it very difficult to provide any effective student support, no matter how good the learning technology.

In addition, there are all sorts of questions both about how reliable the figures really are when they are published, or what should be read into them.

It is therefore time to look at all this in a more scholarly manner, and to investigate much more closely what is needed for a good education system. ‘Lower is better’ is not of itself a sufficient principle.

Time to retire the sage on the stage?

May 13, 2014

For centuries universities in the west have based their learning methods on the lecture. The concept is simply enough: a lecturer stands in front of an often large group of students and delivers a monologue on his or her specialist topic. Students take notes. Then at some later point there is an examination, during which the students will try to recreate the lecturer’s approach to the subject, and maybe add some analysis or commentary if they dare. And if all of that works well, the student gets a degree.

Of course a good deal of lecturing is better than that, but some isn’t. Truly interactive lectures are still rare, and nowadays many student don’t turn up at these events at all. Still, this is a resilient form of teaching, and even now new university buildings will typically contain fairly inflexible (in terms of design and furnishing) lecture theatres. But is that justified?

A recent study in the United States has again called into question the usefulness of the lecture. It revealed that students taught principally through traditional lectures have a high failure rate and learn less effectively. This does not mean that teaching large classes is always bad, but rather than various ‘active learning’ and participation techniques will create a better pedagogical setting. This could include the use of technology, or breaking into smaller groups for more interactive discussions.

In reality many lecturers will already employ interactive learning techniques, even in large lecture classes. However, it is perhaps time to look again at how useful the lecture really is. Certainly in the internet age it can be seriously questioned whether lectures are needed where their purpose is simply to disseminate basic information. But it can also be asked whether a theatre-style lecture room is what is needed as we make use of newly gained pedagogical insights, and whether new academic buildings should contain such facilities at all. It is time to ask whether lecturers really should, well, lecture.

2014 and the higher education agenda

January 7, 2014

For the past two weeks or so, and like much of the rest of society around here, this blog took a holiday. But now we are well into 2014, and it is time to consider what this year might bring.

If you follow some discussions of higher education, the impression you might get is that it is all about two things: how universities and colleges are funded, and how they are run. A more recent perspective has been added by some movements that have sprung up in the academic community, such as the ‘Campaign for the Public University‘ in Britain and ‘Defend the Irish University‘ in Ireland. These have focused on the status of higher education as a ‘public good’ rather than a private benefit for students – with resulting implications for funding and management.

What gets much less air time is the substance of higher education: what it does, and how it can best do it. There has, over the past year or two, been some discussion about so-called MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses); but apart from that, there is little public debate about pedagogy, or about the changing contours of knowledge, or the potential benefits to society of different kinds of scholarship. There is discussion about whether economic impact is a legitimate consideration in higher education strategy, but relatively little about how universities can provide leadership in social, cultural and economic renewal.

I have no doubt that this blog will continue to address the funding and management issues; but I hope we can also discuss a little more how higher education can develop and reinvent itself in its education and knowledge dimension. That’s my hope for 2014.

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.

Digital ephemera?

September 18, 2012

Although we now clearly live in a digital age, we are often still very hesitant about accepting its robustness. In fact, though I am an enthusiastic user of every digital device and all electronic media, even I can be uncertain about their durability. A couple of years ago I was asked by a group of schoolchildren to advise them what format to use for electronic data they wanted to put in a time capsule, to be opened in 100 years. Paper, I said without hesitation. I could not be sure that a disk, or a memory stick, or a DVD would still be readable in 100 years time, or indeed that they would not have degraded in the interim.

So what does that mean? Should we assume that what we consume in digital format is for the moment only? This question has been raised on some occasions in relation to ebooks: is reading literature (or anything else) in this format the same as reading a paper-based book, or is it in some way different? The author Jonathan Franzen has recently suggested that the ‘impermanence’ of ebooks makes them unsuitable for serious reading. This becomes an issue in universities when the prospect arises of distributing course materials entirely in digital format, so-called ‘etexts’. Some argue in favour of using these, others are more cautious; but the early evidence is that they can be very effective educational tools.

Personally, I am willing to read pretty much anything in ebook format, though if I believe that I will want to read the book again and may want to reference it in future, I’ll buy a paper copy. But textbooks are different anyway. Most students dispose of them after they have completed their studies. There is therefore little reason to conclude that having etexts is somehow worse than having traditional books; indeed the use of etexts may provide lecturers with an opportunity to use innovative pedagogy.

I still do not know how the digital world will develop, and I am absolutely ready to believe that what we use now in electronic format will not be useable in 30 years time. But I do believe that the principle of electronic reading will continue to be adopted, and the technology will eventually produce more durable products; and I see no evidence of any pedagogical disadvantage. We must continue to innovate, even if the books on my bookshelves will remain also.