I hadn’t intended to blog again before the New Year but I read this piece by economist Dr. Constantin Gurdgiev while feeling tired and cranky and the only cure for my frustration was a blog post! Gurdgiev is a commentator that I enjoy reading because he seems to be one of the few observers whose analyses are data-driven. His output is impressive indeed. However, I think he lost the plot a bit with this one. There’s a lot in the article, much of it related to how are universities are supposedly under-performing on the world stage but I’m going to ignore much of it and focus more on some of his comments on teaching and learning in the third level sector. I think they are indicative of a school of thought of which another well-known commentator, Marc Coleman, is a believer.
Here’s the first quote that caught my attention:
“As to teaching, instead of developing modern, research-capable and skills-based adjunct and clinical faculties, most of our degree programmes continue to operate on the basis of FULL-TIME faculty teaching OUT OF a textbook, and INTO a pre-set, STANDARDISED exam. Furthermore, programmes are often staffed with faculty members who do neither nor research nor applied work related to their teaching.”
The problem with this analysis is that it fails to recognise that teaching at any level is a full time, highly skilled profession. It cannot be done well on a part-time basis. It takes years to acquire the expertise to be able to design courses, to be able to pitch material at the right level, to develop the skills required to meaningfully engage students (not present them with anecdotes from the ‘real world’) and to teach material that fits logically into a coherent programme of learning. I’m teaching for years and I’m still learning. To suggest that you can teach in a half-hearted sort of way is simply wrong in my view and makes the basic mistake of assuming that because someone might be an expert in their discipline that they will be able to teach it effectively. Indeed, there is some evidence in the engineering education literature that being research-active is not a necessary condition for effective teaching. There is an old saying that those that teach cannot do. But in my experience, the corollary is even more true: those that do cannot teach. Those of us who teach for a living – at any level – need to be much more vocal about the challenges involved in our job. It is not easy to teach especially in these days where students live and study in a highly distracting environment.
As for the research thing, in my experience the vast majority of academics, at least in sciences and engineering, are research-active. Of course, there will be some who do very little research or scholarship but I remain to be convinced that the numbers involved are significant.
As for teaching from a TEXTBOOK and INTO a pre-set STANDARDISED exam; that is, once again, simply untrue. It is the sort of comment you occasionally hear from undergraduates who ask you what book you got the material from and you reply that you didn’t get it from any book – much to their amazement! In any event, some of us even write our own textbooks. As for the exam being standardised, that is plain wrong. There is a huge element of freedom in how exams are designed at third level. There is no outside agency doing it for us. I change my exam structures all the time because I am learning all the time and I am not dealing with a fixed population of students. I also like to vary what I teach and different topics often require different styles of exam question. You have to be adaptable in this profession.
Here’s another quote:
“While top universities around the world are aggressively moving to new teaching platforms and broadening their programmes by erasing the boundaries between diverse degrees, in Ireland we still treat a slide-projector as a technological enabler. Web-based apps, audio-visual tools, data visualisation and other core tech supports are virtually unheard of, even in top-ranked Irish universities.”
Again, I don’t know what planet Dr. Gurdgiev is on. Nobody relies on slide projectors any more although PowerPoint is probably overused. Furthermore there is a huge amount of teaching innovation going on in the third level sector. In fact, one of my criticisms has been that there is perhaps a degree of innovation for innovation sake. What many critics simply don’t understand is that most lecturers would rather teach in more interactive ways than via the traditional lecture and are always keen – perhaps too keen – to adopt novel approaches. Furthermore, many academics routinely use digital tools – some available online – to enhance their teaching. I would suggest that Dr. Gurdgiev pay a visit to DCU someday and actually talk to some of the academics. A good day would be when the President’s Awards for Teaching are announced. I think Dr. Gurdgiev might be pleasantly surprised by how much is going on.
As for this ‘erasing the boundaries’ between disciplines thing, I would suggest that people think very carefully before adopting a multi-disciplinary approach in undergraduate degree programs. I have taught on one such degree for over 20 years and in my experience only the very best students can cope with this type of program. Most students will gravitate towards one aspect of the program – the part they like and for which they have an aptitude. They will tend to dispense with the other stuff at the earliest opportunity. On the Biotechnology degree that I teach (running since the early 1980s by the way) it is our experience that most of our graduates pursue careers in which they use their training in biology but tend to ‘ditch’ the chemical engineering that I teach – unfortunately. They find it hard to learn how to ‘do’ engineering because they are never truly immersed in it. The reality is that learning is often best achieved by a process of immersion and interdisciplinary degrees often fail to provide that immersion. There is a real danger that students will end up without a critical mass of knowledge in anything. These are real concerns and should not be dismissed as simply representing a reluctance to change. One has to ask oneself why disciplines exist at all. I think they exist for good reason – there is some unifying set of principles and tools that pervade everything that is taught within the discipline. This is not the case with multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary programs.
“In many university classrooms, students are more technologically-enabled than their lecturers. Without modern strategies and technologies, Ireland has embraced the three-year degree system. If anything, the lack of proper progress in developing teaching skills and tools should have led to an increase in the length of the degree programme to maintain the quality of the graduates. Instead we opted to trade down the learning curve in pursuit of higher student numbers.”
To be honest, I’m baffled by this. Most degree programs at least in science and engineering are still four-years in length. Maybe Dr. Gurdgiev is talking about Bologna and the 3/5 system but there’s no sign of that kind of structure being widely adopted any time soon. Furthermore, it is my experience that students are not actually very technologically savvy at all. Sure, they know their way around social media and can access all sorts of film and music websites but they often have poor skills in the use of workhorse tools like Microsoft Office.
There is also an implication within the above quote that because we have apparently been slow to develop new teaching tools, the length of degree programs should be getting longer! This is not consistent with the reality of teaching at third level. In fact, the opposite is probably the case. Teaching innovations like Problem Based Learning, for example, are extremely time-consuming and inevitably mean a tradeoff between the supposed quality of the learning experience and the quantity of the knowledge that the student acquires. I know from experience that when I use active approaches to teaching I get through very little indeed. What is happening in the third level sector at the moment – and Dr. Gurdgiev seems to be unaware of this – is an ongoing questioning of the appropriate balance between knowledge acquisition and the acquisition of what might be loosely termed ‘learning skills’. There is a view that a love of learning and having skills for lifelong learning are the key attributes of any graduate – more so than knowledge itself. I’m not so sure but these are tricky questions and to simply assume that novel teaching methods are better and, crucially, more time-efficient is a mistake.
Finally, the student numbers thing. There is a view held by some that the rise in third level participation rates is driven by the universities in search of …..I’m not sure what. This is to completely misunderstand the underlying dynamic at work in our society. As I say in my book, education exists within a society and reflects the values of that society. As our economic prosperity increased and globalisation occurred, there began a huge political and cultural shift towards education. Those who had prospered during the Celtic Tiger years wanted their children to get an education that they perhaps had not received themselves. In addition, policy makers suggested that if we were to succeed in the globalised economy, we would have to do so as a ‘knowledge economy’ – hence the political drive towards mass education. These are economic, political and cultural forces and they are not driven by third level institutions in search of power and status. In fact, many of us would positively relish a reduction in student numbers but to do so is neither financially nor culturally possible. In fact, given the lack of resources and the demands placed on us, I would suggest that the third level sector has performed heroically with the only caveat being that the enormous increase in participation rates has been achieved by a reduction in standards. But the world is different now and third level education is not what it used to be and we have more or less accepted that.
We live in a time when everybody has something to say about everything. Education is one of those areas of life about which everybody has an opinion – “I failed the Leaving and earn 200K a year!” – that sort of thing. Those of us in academia who know and understand the education system need to be more vocal. We cannot let the media be dominated by opinion. We need to present the facts, not anecdotes.