Saturday, August 13, 2011

Close to you

Being in the same room as a teacher does not mean you learn anything. However we still judge the quality of a university course largely on the amount of time students are in the same room as a teacher. This contact time still normally takes the form of lectures which tend to be fairly one-sided unless the number of students is very low. Many students say little or nothing in their lectures and it's doubtful if they really learn so much from this precious contact time. Since lectures can now be prerecorded and watched anywhere and any time wouldn't it be better to put them on the net and create more time for real contact in the form of discussion, experiment and group work?

This issue is discussed in a lengthy but thought-provoking article by Paul Ramsden in Times Higher Education, When I grow up I want to be spoon fed. He sees the current debate about contact hours as too simplistic since most of these hours consist of lecturing that is often one way traffic.

"Lecturers and their institutions need to remind themselves that university teaching is not a delivery process. On the contrary, it's a sort of conversation - and in a conversation, listening is as important as speaking. This implies less conventional lecturing and more communication. It is a national disgrace in 2011 that the most common form of contact hour is still the lecture."

He sees the lecturing tradition as spoon feeding and advocates putting much more responsibility on students to take charge of their learning rather than cramming lecture notes at the end of term. There is also a need to make students much more involved in course design and giving them a good deal of responsibility for redisgning a course for the following year's students.

"Perhaps the most telling evidence that we are getting this part wrong comes from the 2010 NUS survey. About 90 per cent of students want to be involved in shaping course design, but only 59 per cent say that they are. The primary basis of a positive student experience and lasting learning outcomes is taking an energetic part in the life of the university - and collaborating with fellow students and staff, both in class and out of it. Providentially this way of thinking about "contact" fits well into the culture of academic collegiality."

Courses can be much more student-driven and this is a feature of more innovative initiatives like Peer 2 Peer University that I have frequently mentioned here. It's a case of moving education from a charter holiday where everything is planned in advance and the teachers look after you all the way to a backpacking holiday where you have to work things out for yourself with the help of your fellow travellers. Not that I see it as a case of one way replacing the other but I believe that we learn much more by backpacking, especially when the teachers are part of the backpacking team as experienced guides.

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