Tuesday, May 17, 2011

55/100: Teaching in Higher Ed

I am amazed how little discussion there is about teaching in higher education. I am currently exploring what is available, and indeed coming across people like Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Rowland, but this is quite inadequate given the huge expansion of university education and teacher numbers. Derek Bok, the former President of Harvard University, wrote that universities often don't want to discuss or improve teaching: Research yes, teaching no. There seems to be an idea that teaching needs to be steady state, whatever we need to know about teaching is already known and if you let someone with enough knowledge and experience inside the class, nothing else will be required.

I have also read Phillip Altbach edited The Fall of the Guru, where he and his associates explore the teaching profession in the context of Asian Higher Ed. What comes out is that while the provisions for Higher Ed have generally expanded, there is a de-professionalization of teaching. Admittedly, teaching was a sort of a 'soft' profession: Teachers never trained as hard as an Engineer or a Doctor will do. But, the drive to expand the Higher Ed provisions has taken away the minimum requirements one needed to have to teach, except a Masters or a Research degree. In a way, that re-affirms the de-professionalization rather than any developments the other way around, because while the focus is on the degrees tutors have - the easy thing, because of the expansion of higher education and more people doing degrees - the requirements to know how to teach, actually transfer knowledge or to inspire the learners to inquire and learn, have been ignored. Call this the vicious cycle of higher education where more degrees produce more degrees, but this seems to be a continuous downward journey, with teaching effectiveness reducing at each step.

Of course, I generalize: There are some excellent teachers in today's classroom, but they are there by accident. With banks and IT companies wooing away the best talents and teaching profession stuck with its peppercorn salaries, inherent volatility because of its regulated nature and the state of change in public administration, and the 'massification' of education (and increased workload), one would wonder someone who has the knowledge and the abilities to teach a future generation of bankers and IT geeks will actually want to do so.

So, I am not surprised when it comes to innovation in teaching, it is an oxymoron. The only thing seems to matter is how it was done always. For that matter, innovation in teaching was mostly done top-down, initially driven by rank outsiders and then sponsored by bureaucrats, trustees or patrons, and the same pattern continues. This puts Higher Ed at a serious disadvantage as it tries to become an industry. The businesses thrive on innovation, continuously challenging the way things are done, and rewarding change rather than status quo: At least the most successful businesses do that. That is not, unfortunately, the culture of Higher Ed.

As I play with technologies of teaching, and explore new ideas, like making multimedia content part of a student's assessed work, I know the journey is likely to be difficult. My inspiration indeed comes from the Chronicle (see here) and as I read elsewhere that American universities are looking at Multimedia dissertations. I can clearly see why it should be done - because the generations that are in the university today will think it is a natural thing to do and that this would be a necessary skill when they work, research or set up businesses - but also know that this will happen only very slowly, because of stagnant culture of Higher Ed. I have already been told that doing an online degree may not seem credible: My idea is exactly the reverse, as a carefully constructed online degree will do much more than a random teacher teaching a random topic without any correlation to students' interests or what they will need to do in their professional lives - all leading to a random assessment. I know doing anything new is difficult in Higher Ed, but I am counting on the general turmoil in our everyday life and the sort of zero gravity behaviour that the governments are displaying lately, and hopefully the change I am proposing will look puny in the face of the deep systemic changes that everything is going through now.

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