Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Are university lectures obsolete?

Many of them are certainly badly done but that does not condemn the genre.  I often lectured to a class of 1,000 students or more in a big auditorium and got enough feedback to think I made some impression.  But I always spoke extempore and took questions to some degree so what I saw in front of me were generally very attentive students.

But speaking extemore is, I acknowledge, a big ask.  One needs both considerable self-confidence and a thorough knowledge of one's subject.  I admit to being rather severe about it  but I have always said that if you need to prepare your lectures you don't know your subject well enough.

And being able to approach the lecturer after the lecture and ask for clarifications etc. is not something you can do to a face on a screen.  I regularly had  small groups of students taking up points with me after a lecture  -- something I enjoyed.

So I go half-way with the writer below.  I think live lectures should remain but they should always be recorded and made  available in that form for occasions when that might be helpful  to some or all students -- JR

Imagine sitting in a crowd of 1000 or so students in a university lecture hall and not understanding something. Do you ask a question or do you just zone out and log onto Facebook instead?

Outside our university lecture halls, the rest of the world is in the grips of a digital communications revolution offering an ever increasing number of options for truly engaging, personalised learning.

Today's standard lecture, as a knowledge delivery model, is a legacy of our pre-digital past. We already have decades of research behind us which says that, as far as learning goes, having one person stand up in front of lots of people and talking non-stop is about as ineffective as it gets.

The idea that much learning, and indeed wisdom, was to be found on campus at the foot of the masters — learning by osmosis alongside a visionary physicist in a university science lab, for example — might have once rung true.  But bring in the big, modern lecture halls of mass higher education and those same masters do not necessarily inspire as teachers, nor do they have the opportunity to connect with students on an effective, personal level.

So why persist with a teaching model dating back to the 1200s when alternative, superior digital communications tools are evolving so rapidly around us? Perhaps old habits die hard. Perhaps we haven't yet worked out an alternative strategy to teach the ever increasing cohorts of tertiary students in Australia and worldwide.

But, if universities don't move fast, the rest of the world of teaching and learning  – now increasingly online, global and outside the ivory tower of academia — will have moved on without them.

Accessible online education options are expanding exponentially. Some are offered by entirely new players in the market like the US-based Khan academy, a Bill Gates-backed not for profit online educator which has already delivered some 158 million lessons for free. Others are offered by internationally renowned universities like MIT and Harvard, which recently announced a US $60 million online joint venture to offer their courses worldwide, free.

At the same time, the global demand for mass higher education is outstripping the capacity and infrastructure of traditional on-campus universities. In Australia, the federal government is actively pushing university enrolments towards new higher education attainment targets; potentially cramming more students into already crowded lecture halls.

But, why run mass lectures on campus at all? Student attendance and attentiveness is falling, and many lectures can now be viewed on YouTube anyway.

Universities could take the first step towards the future by shifting the classroom, with its human scale interaction, to the top of the on-campus education agenda. Much of the common "content" for particular disciplines can be effectively delivered online.

We could turn back to Confucius for a way forward. He said: "I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand." Hearing and seeing is what we call "lean back learning". But doing- via problem solving – is "lean forward learning".

We should be using precious face time in classrooms for these lean forward types of teaching — to ask hard questions, to take part in interactive tasks, for guided problem solving, for working in groups and for engaging with directly and productively with teachers or tutors. Not for "talking at" students en masse. This could lead to a better "productivity of learning" - a measure of how fast and well a concept is learnt.

If students can get through the basic maths, for example, at home using online adaptive eLearning modules which guide them through the steps and give them personalised feedback as they go, wouldn't that mean that universities could concentrate on higher level learning and inquiry and research in class? That is, the future of universities may lie in shifting away from dispensing knowledge on campus towards interpreting and applying knowledge, with consequent gains for innovation.  [Knowledge is never "dispensed".  It is always interpreted]

More here

Scott Walker Prepares to Reform Higher Education

Bad Boy Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, fresh from taking on collective bargaining and triumphant after winning the recall election, is headed for more controversy, more upheaval and more angry squeals as he prepares to go after yet another sacred cow. His next mission is to take on Wisconsin’s higher education system. On June 19, Walker and officials from the University of Wisconsin announced a “revolutionary” flexible degree program. From the press release:

    "The unique self-paced, competency-based model will allow students to start classes anytime and earn credit for what they already know. Students will be able to demonstrate college-level competencies based on material they already learned in school, on the job, or on their own, as soon as they can prove that they know it. By taking advantage of this high quality, flexibility model, and by utilizing a variety of resources to help pay for their education, students will have new tools to accelerate their careers. Working together, the UW System, the State of Wisconsin, and other partners can make a high-quality UW college degree significantly more affordable and accessible to substantially more people."

It is one thing to proclaim an ideal, and something else to develop a system that actually works, but the language at least points toward exactly the kind of flexible programs Via Meadia and others have been advocating.

Change has to come. After World War Two the United States built its modern university system by extending a model that was originally intended to groom the sons of a social elite to succeed their fathers as government and business leaders to manage the preparation of tens of millions of people for the business of life.

The template doesn’t work in many cases, and the result increasingly is that training and job preparation takes too long and costs too much. The problem isn’t that America has “too much” education. The problem is that a 21st century society needs to be able to teach more skills to more people at a much lower cost and in much less time than our 20th century institutions can manage. It’s really that simple. The most urgent business of a state university system at this point must be to reform and improve the kind of education (in many cases, training) that can enable the state’s citizens of any and every age to acquire skills and prepare themselves to flourish in a rapidly changing economy.

Those who like myself are the products of the traditional elite educational system are naturally and properly concerned about the future of liberal as opposed to utilitarian education as this transformation takes place. But even we have to recognize that the first priority of state governments has to be to get the utilitarian stuff right.

Scott Walker will not be the last state governor to try his hand at education reform. It will be a bumpy road, and there will be failures and lessons learned. But through efforts like this one, through borrowing best practice from other states and countries and through trying new ideas in many states and many institutions, public and private, non-profit and for-profit, we will eventually develop an educational system that better serves the people than the one we have now.

Last month saw a crisis erupt at the University of Virginia. Now we have some radical proposals surfacing in Wisconsin. There will be more. The conflict between society’s need for more education and the high costs of the system we’ve built is intensifying. The fiscal squeeze at every level of government makes it impossible to manage the problem simply by shoveling more money into a dysfunctional system. Higher education in the United States is headed towards the biggest and most revolutionary upheaval since the birth of the mass modern university system at the end of World War Two.


The case for school streaming from age 11 in Britain  is overwhelming. But how long will it take the Conservatives to learn from the lessons of the past?

The latest findings of the Sutton Trust Report published today, based on a Buckingham University analysis of the PISA tests (Programme for International Student Assessment) confirm of what we already know. This is why they are so damning.

England, it found, ranked 26th out of 34 OECD countries for the proportion of pupils reaching the top level in maths. It fell behind other nations like Slovenia (3.9%), the Slovak Republic (3.6%) France (3.3%) and the Czech Republic (3.2%), which all scored around the OECD average.

So it is not hard to guess the answer to this question: how many pupils from English comprehensive schools got the highest marks in international tests for maths?   A dunce would get it; almost none.

It comes as no surprise that teenagers in England are half as likely as those in the average developed nation to reach higher levels in maths; that only 1.7% of England's 15-year-olds reached the highest level, Level 6, in maths, as compared with an OECD average of 3.1%; or that in countries as diverse as Switzerland and Korea, 7.8% of pupils reached this level.

It is a damning indictment of our comprehensive education system, the system responsible for dragging the country down.

It is an even more damning indictment that government after government, including the 18 years of Conservative Governments, sanctioned this system along with the progressive deterioration of standards it led to; all in the name  of a bankrupt, bolshy, anti- elitist, anti-competitive, socialist ideology that none dared  challenge.

Those responsible should be bowing their heads in shame.

They include just about every Secretary of State for Education since the arch instigators of this ill advised cultural revolution, Anthony Crosland and Shirley Williams. It was the inverted snobbery of these two – a luxury afforded the upper class left alone – that set this monstrous dumbing down in motion.

"If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to destroy every f….g grammar school in England,” Susan Crosland afterwards reported her late husband to have said. Thanks to the weakness of the Conservative Education Secretaries who succeeded him, he just about did.

How these Conservatives came to betray their own better judgment is hard to understand. But they did – including Margaret Thatcher herself and the neo liberal Keith Joseph. As a result of their intellectual cowardice the number of comprehensive schools doubled between 1970 and 1974. The grammar school success stories of first Harold Wilson, then Edward Heath and most remarkable of all, Margaret Thatcher, apparently counted for nothing.

Mrs Thatcher redeemed herself somewhat by giving back the right to select pupils for secondary education at 11 to LEAs in 1979. Arguably it kept the grammar school dream alive but given the preponderance of socialist local education authorities that was all. The majority of grammar schools were purged.

Through to John Patten and Kenneth Baker, who, while maybe  not accepting the ant elitist socialist paradigm,  they all still failed to challenge it.

Conservative Education Secretaries followed the futile path of reforming the curriculum through top down edicts – ever more narrowly and pedantically interpreted by the educationalists in the vain attempt to raise standards. The critical challenge of taking on teacher training has never happened.

Schooling has been subject to the worst possible cocktail of ideological claptrap and performance management bureaucracy and monitoring. Ironically it has led to almost the entire teaching profession being alienated as a result.

When Keith Joseph first proposed linking teacher appraisal and performance-related pay, the result was a year of industrial action by teachers. The teaching unions have held the government to ransom ever since. The price paid was the loss of parents’ respect for teachers.

The unions have also resolutely buried their heads in the sand.

The  teachers’ union's’ reactions to today’s Sutton report are par for the course. Chris Keates (NASUWT) disputes the validity of the international comparisons. Her alter ego Christine Blower insists (the Today programme this morning) that separating out children at 11 is not the best way.

No? So how would she explain why local authorities like Buckinghamshire, Sutton, Kent and Trafford, all of whom have selective education systems in place, score so much higher on national tests taken at 11 than their local authority counterparts within the comprehensive system. Justin Webb, the Today interviewer did not challenge her on this.

Yet effectively this is what the Sutton Trust is suggesting as their solution to the dire state of pupils’ maths. For what are they describing, when they advocate pulling out the brightest at 11 and tracking them thereafter, other than the introduction of selection at eleven – that is, the Grammar School system?

The government should take heed. Only by biting this bullet can they put this shameful episode of education history behind us. This is a Berlin Wall moment.

Michael Gove’s latest sensible edict is to test every eleven year old in the country on their grammar and punctuation skills. So why not go the whole hog and do it through an 11 plus exam? It is the only way to make it meaningful.

There is no reason why there should not be a 13 plus and 14 plus entry exam too – to allow for late developers and less socially advantaged children to feed in. Nor, with high class vocational and technical education, should there be any shame in movement each way.

The dangers of a continued downward slide are too real otherwise -  despite all his good intentions. As Nick Seaton of the Campaign for Real Education points out, the “progressives” will always be ruthless in pursuit of their goals. If they can they will resist, water down or corrupt each and every sensible reform Michael Gove suggests.

The 164 grammar schools that survived the great purge are demonstrably a force for good. They are the only real counterweight to the inevitable top heavy public school domination over politics, business and the professions.

Children gain by being educated with children of similar ability. It is a fact but one that politicians have yet to have  the intellectual courage to grasp  and state.

Grammar school ‘products’ from my own experience  understand meritocracy and hard work. They have no time for entitlement and snobbery and, whatever their background, are rarely beset with anxieties or resentment about class. Grammar schools breed natural confidence and competence.

Many adults, as well as children, would fail the 11 plus today might be true. But that is no argument against setting it. It would sharpen everyone up. It would open up social mobility.

But more importantly, there is no other way to end the stultifying, egalitarian, non-competitive ideology responsible for this catastrophic fall in standards.


No comments: