13 July 2010

Evolving teaching practice in universities

This week I attended two excellent, if poorly attended, staff development activities arranged by the University. In the first, Vicky Minderhout (Seattle University) and Dan Bedgood (Charles Sturt University) collaborated on a workshop that was advertised as teaching large classes. They took the group through Minderhout’s Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) model, which has its roots in small group discovery learning.

To quote from her materials:

“A POGIL classroom or laboratory consists of students working in small groups on specially designed guided inquiry materials. These materials supply students with data or information to interpret followed by guiding questions designed to lead them toward formulation of their own valid conclusions – essentially a recapitulation of the scientific method. The instructor serves as facilitator, observing and periodically addressing individual and classroom-wide needs.”

The real power of the model became clear as Dr Minderhout modelled her technique with the group. Her classroom is highly managed and time-on-task is structured and focussed.

The second event, a presentation and workshop run by Professor Sally Kift, advertised as focussing on the First Year Experience, also worked its way towards a discussion of good curriculum design. Kift has spent some time in her own institution working to ensure that her colleagues understand curriculum as widely as possible. She gave us the definition used by her institution, QUT:

“Curriculum [is] far more than a list of content to be mastered, or a list of units in sequence. It is a learning environment: a planned arrangement of space, time, resources, people and ideas.”

Both events were outstanding: master classes in good teaching technique and practice, clearly grounded in the research that supports the practice of all good curriculum designers. Kift, in particular, gave us a walk through her own evolution as a university teacher, and give us an insight into her current work as the ALTC Discipline Scholar for Law, developing the Threshold Learning Outcomes that will be used by the new quality agency – TEQSA – to assess standards.

Sadly, almost no one from my own institution attended either session, and those who did attend are already excellent, innovative teachers or members of my tribe – the educational designers of the University . We are already familiar with the issues, the practices, the literature, and the research. It’s always great to review materials, and to get someone else’s take on the body of knowledge ... but ... why aren’t my academic colleagues from the disciplines attending in greater numbers?

One of Tony Bates’ posts gives us a possible answer.

He reported this week on two articles that deal with the implementation of educational technologies, and barriers to change that might (could? ought to?) come about as the result of the benefits afforded by a range of technologies.

He writes:

“There is an increasing awareness that for technology to be used effectively, there [have] to be changes in the way people work. This ‘truth’ is only slowly penetrating the post-secondary education sector.”

For a long time, members of my tribe – the educational designers – thought that if we told our academic colleagues that we were implementing educational technology, we would be able to smuggle in a few ideas about good curriculum design and improved university teaching. Some of my current colleagues still talk about using the introduction of a new Learning Management System (LMS) as a Trojan horse. I think this is a complete furphy: if we tell our highly intelligent, time-poor academic colleagues that we are talking about the technology, they believe us. I believe that we need to be a little more respectful ... but also a little more demanding.

Bates concludes this post with two points. He chastises those academic staff members who put their own careers above change that will benefit students and the sector, and puts his opinion that institutional change will be impossible without improvements in the governance of universities. He calls for more effective leadership, more training in change management, and academic career incentives that reward innovative teaching.

There is a strong feeling among many working in the sector that a large proportion of Australian universities are too focussed on research at the expense of teaching. This would come as a surprise to the average Australian saving up to send his or her children to university. The average Australian thinks that the main purpose of the higher education sector is to educate future generations, to provide them with the knowledge, the skills, the expertise and the qualifications that will give them a leg up in the employment market.

Of course it is a little more complex than that. For me, universities are learning organizations, where the community (staff, students, and other interested participants) construct, share, and acquire knowledge. Some in the community are expert, some are novice – all are learners, whether they are crusty old researchers on the point of retirement or first year undergraduates right out of secondary school. Not everyone perceives universities in the same way, though. For too many of my academic colleagues, they are the ones who know how to “do” university work (so why should they change?), and their students and the general / professional staff of the university do not.

That, I think, is why change in universities is so difficult.

If we could re-conceptualize the university as a place where all are learners, it might be easier to bring about evolution in the way university academics approach their curriculum design and teaching practice.

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