I have just finished listening to an interview by Martin Weller with George Siemens and Dave Cormier, two pioneers of MOOCs. The interview was very insightful and I found myself nodding in agreement with much of what they had to say but at the very end came the most interesting comment from Dave Cormier when asked what was the future of MOOCs and could they, for example, kill the universities. To paraphrase him, he basically argued that if the aim of the university is to provide content then universities are already dead.
As someone who teaches a range of modules at undergraduate level from a very content heavy first year module on neuroscience to an exploratory content light final year module on learning design, I agree with this statement. However, there are two things that hold me back in being less content focused and more focused on the process of learning and becoming engaged in a discipline in other ways that be useful for later life:
i) My own stubbornness as a academic and so-called expert
ii) My students - no one has told them this is not about content
I am going to comment briefly on each of these beginning with my stubbornness as an academic. When you start teaching often the only thing you have great experience of (even if you have a teaching qualification) is your own experience as a learner and so, when I began teaching in 2004 I was drawing on my own experiences from almost a decade earlier. When I had to first teach about Parkinson's disease I was literally breaking into a cold sweat remembering my own efforts as a learner to understand the circuitry to the basal ganglia. Mastering it (and going on to research it) made me feel that it was a valuable albeit painful exercise and so my own students must endure the same. However, I am not only stubborn in the content I teach but how I teach it. I know, as do most lecturers, that lecturing is a poor relationship of other methods, but I still have high expectations of what my students can learn and what they will do in a lecture. I recently conducted some research into lectures with staff and students and found that both cohorts see them as an opportunity for knowledge acquisition, although staff expect the students to participate more in the lecture. Additionally, the most contact time is in lectures so we dedicate the most direct teaching and learning time to knowledge acquisition - as I type this I question my sanity!
Now moving onto the next reason - no one has told the students that their degree is not about content. There are, of course, a huge number of reasons why students come to university expecting to acquire knowledge and the students themselves should not be blamed for this. However, the increase in fees and customer approach we now find ourselves forced to take in higher education means that when students demand information we give it to them. As an example of this, I have just received feedback on a module I teach where I have deliberately reduced lectures and held workshops and given more time for independent study, making it clear the reading should include but not be limited to academic literature. Overall, module feedback is good with ratings given on a scale of 1 to 5, I have scores ranging from 3.8 to 4.9, but one point that is raised each year by one or two students is captured nicely in this year's feedback from a student:
"I would want there to be more lectures and more content".
This leads me to the related issue of the difference between student-centred learning, of which I am a complete advocate, and student-led learning. To be clear what I mean here, is that we should design learning with the experience of the student at the centre to ensure they gain the most value from the learning experience. However, this is not the same as giving them what they want because sometimes they do not want what is best for their learning - the reliance on module feedback and NSS scores makes universities operate like a customer services desk but the customer - at least in higher education - is not always right. Assuming we do have sufficient pedagogy expertise (and if we don't - we should stop teaching) we should listen to all feedback, look for patterns in that feedback, consider options and change things, only if they align with the goals of what we trying to teach or if we realise we need to amend our goals. We should not just change things for the sake of pleasing students when it goes against the requirements of the programme or leaves them ill-prepared for what comes next.
What can we do about this? Well we can clearly get over our own stubbornness and teach for the decade we are in rather than the one we remember formal learning from. By doing this we can be more innovative and I believe in doing so, more successful as teachers. My final year module was by far the most engaging to teach - I learnt more about my students and myself as a teacher when I was less focused on whether the connection from the striatum to the globus pallidus was excitatory or inhibitory. The bigger problem is in addressing student expectations - how can we ensure they see university as about learning beyond learning content. There will will external drivers that support this - reports from big graduate employers for example, but there is also probably things we can do. Two things we can do this is to address student expectations early on in a programme and be very transparent in our pedagogy but there are other ways. I once gave some top tips at the start of a module to my Open University students - the students read the post on the forum and ignored it, ignoring most of the tips as well. At the end of the course, I asked them to give me some tips for next years students, which they did so, plentiful tips largely the same as mine! Interestingly, when I gave these tips to the next cohort explaining last year's group had prepared them for them, they were delighted and commented on how they were going to implement them. So maybe we can use the words and voices of students who have finished their degrees to tell our new arrivals that content is dead - well maybe not dead but just getting on a bit and needs a bit of help around the house.
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