I read an article in The Age on Tuesday titled ‘Politics wanes on the digital campus’. It was essentially about the changes in university campus life over the last forty years and it was quite an interesting read. What struck me though was the following couple of sentences:
“Online lectures make an easy symbol for the death of the traditional university experience. But they are a symptom of a changed era, not its cause. Not all staff put lectures online, and some have ways of saving the lecture theatre from redundancy, reportedly announcing that they are about to give an important exam hint — then covering the mic recording for online.”
I had to smile. This is so typical of the muddled and inconsistent thinking of many academics.
So what we have here is a lecturer who is recording a lecture but who wants the students who actually come to class to have some advantage over those that don’t. Let’s analyse this:
1. Why is the academic giving a lecture?
Is this the best way to disseminate knowledge and understanding to their students? Is the academic one of the very small number of lecturers that can deliver an interactive and engaging lecture that allows their students to actively learn during the lecture? Or are they one of the majority of academics that will deliver some content over an hour two, to a passive audience many of whom will be barely listening.
Maybe they are the former and, if so, then that’s great, well done, keep up the good work. But we know that the majority don’t fall into that category.
2. Why is the academic recording the lecture?
If they are great at giving lectures then, great record your lecture and make it available to students to watch later. Even better, record the lecture then make it open for the world to share under a Creative Commons license.
If they’re not a good lecturer then why not deliver the material differently? Why not break your hour long ‘lecture’ into short, coherent recordings covering specific learning objectives and associate each one with some active learning activities either online or offline? Or use a multitude of other techniques?
3. Why is the academic distinguishing between students that come to class and those that don’t?
The academic clearly thinks that the students should come to the lecture. But why? And why give one passive set of listeners an advantage over another set of passive listeners? There is no logic to this.
4. Why is the academic giving an exam ‘hint’?
What does this say about ‘academic standards’ at universities? We all know that it is common practice to give hints but that doesn’t make it good practice. In fact it’s clearly bad practice. why don’t many academics understand this?
5. Why does the academic happily admit to this practice to the article author?
And here we have the muddled thinking of many frontline academic staff. I suspect that this largely stems from a lack of strong leadership, direction and commitment to quality at all levels within universities. This lack of strong direction seems to be masqueraded under the guise of ‘academic freedom’. I’m sure it’s been common for a long time but it’s probably just more apparent now than previously as attitudes to learning in higher education are changing more than ever.
I do find it more than ironic that as divisions between TAFE (vocational education) and Higher Education in Australia are being challenged, many of the objections to TAFEs offering degrees are based on the notion of a perceived lack of quality standards. I’ll make the observation that, having spent over 20 years in Higher Education in the UK and Australia at many institutions, the institution that, in my experience, had the highest level of quality assurance in teaching and learning was the Polytechnic of Wales/University of Glamorgan twenty years ago. This was an institution whose quality standards were monitored by the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) and the rigour with which quality standards were applied would make academics at self monitoring universities blanche.
Maybe universities need to put their own houses in order before criticising others. I won’t hold my breath.