I wanted to comment on Nicholas Gruen’s recent post titled the future of tertiary education, but I didn’t have time and there was too much I wanted to say. Hence this post.
I agree with most of Nicholas’s points (some with qualifications) but there’s much more that needs saying. Let’s start with Nicholas’s observation about lectures:
Teaching methods are also changing at a surprisingly slow rate. It seems so obvious that lectures should be both taped and lavished with some serious resources so that, for instance there might be a wealth of really good lectures that people can pull down at any university, with the university’s value add being in how they engage students with each other and with tutors.
We need to look critically at the whole idea of “lectures” and re-imagine their place in teaching and learning. Education pioneer John Dewey provided a succinct condemnation of the traditional formal lecture-based approach early last century, describing it as ‘transmission by a kind of scholastic pipeline into the minds of pupils whose business is to absorb what is transmitted’. Students generally absorb very little of the traditional 2 hour passive “chalk and talk” lecture, its persistence has more to do with the ego of the lecturer than its teaching effectiveness (not to mention commenter Conrad’s point about drastic resourcing constraints on producing more effective learning resources using Web 2.0 and other tools). The traditional lecture method is condemned in more contemporary pedagogy as the “sage on the stage” approach. It fits poorly with modern “constructivist” concepts of how humans learn. On second thoughts, constructivism isn’t really modern at all. Confucius explained it succinctly
1500 2500 years ago: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”
It has also been well known since the time of Dewey that human learning is socially constructed, although until relatively recently most Australian universities were characterised predominantly by a teacher-centred and lecture-based ‘transmission’ approach. Indeed that’s still true to a large extent. Even in my specialist area of online learning, Levy observes that e-learning ‘is marked by a juxtaposition of new technology and old pedagogy’.
Dewey stressed that ‘the educational process has two sides – one psychological and one sociological; and that neither can be subordinated to the other or neglected without evil results following.’
This conception of learning as socially constructed rather than transmitted by the teacher to relatively passive, receptive students has especially wide implications for distance, flexible and blended approaches to teaching and learning. However, it is also applicable to on-campus learning, though teachers at universities without external programs have seemingly felt less impetus to innovate or interrogate their own teaching practices and assumptions. 11. KP: despite, or perhaps because of, increasingly bureaucratic and coercive quality control mechanisms like AUQA, TEQSA, prescribed graduate attributes and the like [↩]
A constructivist approach implies that face-to-face teaching time will mostly be devoted to interactive learning where students are challenged and guided by the teacher rather than having a ponderous didactic exposition inflicted on them. Students undertake interactive exercises under the teacher’s guidance, including workshopping problem and other scenarios, debates, moots, class presentations and performing role plays or experiments. Students are encouraged or even coerced to study together and prepare for class in small groups (whether in a “meatspace” learning environment or in breakout rooms in a voice/video-enabled virtual classroom). In first year those groups may be mentored by more senior students, which not only enhances constructivist learning but helps overcome constraints of resources, class size and available teacher time.
In this world of constructivist learning the critical e-tools include blogs, wikis, online discussion boards, email, instant messaging and virtual classrooms. They facilitate student interaction and collaborative learning and permit a reasonable level of flexible ongoing guidance by the teacher even with quite large classes and within existing time and resource constraints found in Australian universities.
All this isn’t to deny an important role for something at least vaguely resembling a “lecture” presentation. The teacher’s obligation to ensure that course material is presented to students in an accessible and attractive manner will commonly involve a ‘lecture’ presentation of one sort or another. ‘Resource-based’ approaches to online learning provide a useful way of re- conceptualising the preferred approach to presenting ‘lecture’ content in distance, flexible and blended learning environments:
Resource-based learning is a philosophy of education and a methodology for teaching and learning. It involves the achievement of both subject and information literacy objectives through exposure to and practise with diverse resources. Students become active learners as they use a wide range of materials to investigate subject material prescribed within their classroom curriculum. Teachers and librarians become motivators and facilitators in the learning process and provide the initial subject impetus which drives students to seek information and become creative problem-solvers. The end result is that a “learning culture” is fostered as a climate of active and productive learning is encouraged.
Adoption of a resource-based approach to online learning involves creating pre-recorded presentations in a variety of formats to suit differing student needs, including MP3 audio-only as well as multimedia formats which will include embedded audio and video content 22. KP: probably from a number of leading experts in the field [↩], synchronised Powerpoint presentations, embedded images, animations and links to Internet resources.
Usually these “lecture” presentations will be significantly shorter than the traditional two hour ‘sage on the stage’ lecture, and will be segmented or ‘time-stamped’ to allow students easy, immediate access to particular sub-topics for note-taking and revision purposes.
A resource-based approach frees the teacher from the burden of delivering content while allowing a greater focus on facilitating student learning; allows students to control the place, pace and time of their own learning as well as permitting far greater choice in what resource material to use and how to engage with it.
However, at least as I see it, the logical organisations to produce “lecture” presentations are not individual universities at all but rather the large academic publishers. With the media “convergence” that the Internet has ushered in, there really isn’t any necessary or clear-cut distinction between textbooks, lectures and any other didactic teaching resource. Academic publishers should be migrating their textbooks online at a much greater rate, incorporating the sort of multi-layered and multimedia content outlined above, and also embedding progressive self-assessment quizzes and other formative assessment resources to allow students to learn basic concepts at their own pace and in their own way. Classroom time can then be devoted to developing higher order cognitive skills of critique, analysis and synthesis, aspects which require active engagement with the teacher and other students. The failure of academic publishers to move in that direction is a major failure of imaginative insight and truly a “market failure”. As I observed earlier in this post, some teachers cling to the “chalk and talk” lecture for reasons of ego or habit. But in most cases it’s a result of lack of time, funding, software and technical support necessary to produce high quality multimedia teaching resources.
None of what I’ve discussed above is terribly revolutionary; it’s just standard constructivist pedagogy. However, looking around my own university and others that I’ve visited in recent months, I can only agree with Nicholas’s observation that “teaching methods are … changing at a surprisingly slow rate”. That needs to change, especially given that both major political parties aim at significantly expanding the proportion of Australians undertaking higher education. For that to occur, adoption of constructivist flexible approaches to teaching and learning is essential. An increasing proportion of students will be mature age. For these students the university experience unavoidably requires fitting studies around the demands of work and family and that requires the sort of flexible approaches I’ve been discussing.