The opening keynote from Donald Clark at ALT-C provoked a great deal of feedback on the Twitter back channel – and although quite a bit was uncomplimentary there was some agreement that a keynote that provoked and stimulated conversation had probably done its job….
So what was it that stirred so much feeling amongst the delegates? Clark’s presentation suggested that the lecture was very much dead – in terms of educating students it achieved precious little and the maxim that it was just a mechanism for transferring the notes of the lecturer to the notes of the student was recognised as being true in some circumstances. But not all. One delegate at least recalled her lectures as being stimulating and not something she wanted to leave. Which leaves something of a conundrum – if we have those that are experienced and enthusiastic about their subject, how can we capture that enthusiasm and experience and pass it on to the student body to enhance their learning?
Clark was preaching to the converted. ALT-C is largely attended by those who are making a difference (or at least trying to) but some felt slighted by his onslaught on the lecture. There are a number of challenges. Firstly as Clark pointed out, the lecture is the default delivery mechanism, at least in universities. Why is this? Is it that lectures are seen as cheap particularly in subjects that do not change from one year to the next where there is no need to change the material that is being delivered? Zero cost in preparation, a set of exam questions that get cycled regularly with only minor variation, it is easy to see how the same model gets perpetuated when it is only taking a few staff hours a year to deliver. But for these instances, isn’t there the opportunity for truly standardised offerings? One of the shared services suggestions was that the Open University should deliver standard courses like ‘Introduction to Statistics for non-statisticians’ remotely. It hasn’t happened yet – why is that? Academic self interest? The thought that “if this lecture is delivered by someone else I won’t get the royalties from my book sales”?
Alternatively is the lecture largely geared to providing the material to allow students to pass the course exam rather than learning about the subject? It is a moot point as to whether the lecture is the best mechanism for achieving this aim but I would contend that you can’t tackle the delivery without tackling the assessment model. Is the exam an appropriate assessment model anymore? If it isn’t what is? It is true that there are courses that do not have exams (as far as I know mostly below degree level) but any move away from them has to be well managed. Exams, whether we like it or not, are associated with academic rigour (at least by the popular press). So a move to an alternative assessment model (and in my view the linked delivery model) needs to be well managed to avoid press outcries about the dumbing down of university education.
Finally, there was suggestion that the current financial situation would drive universities away from the lecture towards more online provision with the potential greater economies of scale a main driver. I’ve touched on one of the barriers earlier – vested interest – which may well prevent models where a single supplier (eg the OU) becomes the supplier of core teaching of year one subjects. Another is cost. Later presentations recognised that to produce quality teaching material requires investment. In the current times will universities be willing to invest in new technologies, new delivery mechanisms for their courses? Or will they entrench and not spend anything until the climate improves (and the need has passed). Or attempt to bring in lower cost and lower quality offerings? These are big challenges which can only be met by strong and effective leadership in institutions. So to return to the question earlier, how do you capture enthusiasm and experience from lead researchers to enhance the learning experience? It’s a difficult challenge particularly when different disciplines may well require different approaches. The successful institutions will be those that recognise that.