As global university applications rise and funding arguments rage in many countries ( see, for example, these items from the UK , the US and India) it is interesting to see Donald Clark tackling UK universities for inefficiency based on agricultural calendars and outmoded delivery techniques. Yet is the image of a 365-days a year campus university delivering some recorded “world-class” lectures to students completing their degrees in two years or less, the right one?
Yes, many university classrooms and lecture halls in the UK are strangely silent in the evenings and for several weeks a year. A former colleague of mine was almost blasé about filling his strategy classes at 07.00 in the US and late evening lectures and seminars are normal in many parts of the world. In the UK, such hours are unusual for undergraduate programmes and the reason is partly because going to university was, for the traditional British student, less about gaining a work-related qualification than it was a rite of passage; historically students left home and spent the first week of their student career in ‘Freshers’ Week’ having fun (or not), joining a baffling variety of clubs and surviving ‘alone’. They emerged three or four years later to apply their newly-honed analytical thinking skills to the puzzling process of relating a degree to a job. For some, that is still the case. Visit parts of Southampton or Leeds (or most major cities) out of term-time and they are deserted; in term-time, organise your day to fit with or around the commuting, eating and socialising habits of the students. However, as more students combine study with at least part-time work and undergraduate numbers increase, more flexible academic hours would both suit the economic needs of students and counter the inescapable fact that old-style classrooms do not have elastic walls. Yet, where are the staff to come from? Students on some courses are already complaining about reduced contact hours (time with a trained academic) and academics themselves now have rights and responsibilities as researchers so their time is not necessarily easily re-allocated to teaching longer and/or more varied hours.
On the face of it, this makes the idea of recorded lectures seem attractive but there are two obvious objections. The first is that the best lectures in my varied experience are the ones where the lecturer interacts with the students, taking their questions or ideas and building them into a more holistic framework. By definition, if that is ‘best’, then a recorded lecture cannot be world-class. The second is: how is one going to find and, more importantly train and market a world-class lecturer? If lecturers are spending varied hours in the lecture hall to refine their lecture-delivery skills and doing sufficient research to be considered global experts, a third-party is going to have to find the time to talent-spot and manage the bookings of those who are sufficiently bank-able in academic credibility to be allocated a core-knowledge lecture slot in a number of universities timetables. Some YouTube professors are superb (Michael Wesch comes to mind) but you still need an academic to decide when and where one of those lectures fits in the curriculum, set and monitor the learning outcomes, answer the questions. I have done some of the ‘talent-spotting’ and know just how complex that can be making sure the content, ego and public persona fit production and market needs. I have also managed the production and learning design, but always within a known (or under-development) curricular framework, not as stand-alone television-style programmes. Then, once the world-class guru has been found and filmed – at some suitable fee, of course – what happens to all the thousands of undergraduates, postgraduates and part-time staff already striving to find a secure and academically challenging rung in the employed university hierarchy? Are we condemning a whole generation to be taught by one person and another generation to be nothing but the schedulers and grading assistants?
The idea of students making a leisurely rite of passage combined with serious higher cognitive skill development is, for some, out of date, uneconomic, impractical and – if you are a highly skilled professional returning to education – somewhat insulting. Universities can, in purely space-booking terms, vastly increase their occupancy rate and so, potentially, reduce study time. This, if teaching and other resources permit, can be something no research academic objects to provided the academic outcomes are ‘the same plus’. This notion of ‘the same plus’ is one I think I have invented but it is implicit in many conversations. It is long-established that professional routes to degrees are perfectly acceptable and professional degrees can lead to research higher degrees. The usual academic term is that the professional route and the traditional route must be ‘equivalent’ and often people will say the ‘academic outcomes are the same’. To that, I reply that the same academic outcomes are contained in the results but there is almost always an unavoidable experience that the professional route brings that increases the tacit knowledge base and enriches the work of those who manage to cross the divide and make tacit knowledge explicit through reflective, analytical learning. ‘The same plus’. That is not the same as rattling through a motley collection of ‘degree level’ resources, gaining an attendance stamp and maybe a ‘quiz’ grade for each and getting a degree in two years or less. It also does not fit the needs of those who can only take a course a year because of work and family commitments.
The vast majority of universities now include some form of distance learning whether it is ‘off-campus’ or ‘in-student-residence’ through design or whether it is a complete no-physical-attendance degree. Time is already flexible. As a student, the challenge is to find the degree progamme that knows how to meet your needs and, if you want a professional or part-time route, delivers high quality teaching and content that meets a recognised standard but is not ‘can of beans’ production. The essence of progress, be it academic or economic, is the spark of creativity and innovation that is tempered by knowledge and analysis. A list of recorded lectures is unlikely to fan the spark. A well-designed distance learning degree (community, robust testing and feedback) or an on-campus degree that has real academics using shared internet resources and its own testing are both good choices.
So, Donald, thank you for raising the issue but I’m firmly in the camp of those who do not want to ‘bottle the guru’ but do want greater flexibility of the physical (and teaching) resources of campus universities. The teaching flexibility can probably only come through much more flexible contracts and that might even suit some – how many academics really work 9-5?