At the end of the 19th and start of the 20th Century, there was considerable concern about student attendance at school. To encourage good attendance many education authorities awarded medals to students with exemplary attendance records. This was particularly well developed in London, where from 1887 the London School Board (and later London County Council) awarded medals to students with near-perfect attendance. The medal pictured here was awarded to G. Orbell in 1899, for six consecutive years of good attendance.
School Board for London attendance medal (1899) awarded to G. Orbell for six years of punctual attendance.
As schools were run on a grant that was calculated on attendance figures, schools realized it was in their interest to award medals as there was money attached. The down side to this was that sick children (with diphtheria and the like) would be encouraged to attend school – with devastating consequences for the health of their classmates. After a break for the First World War, the scheme was abandoned after the 1920 school year.
Of course, classrooms were very different when G. Orbell was at school. But after over 120 years of educational research, we would now not expect to see classrooms in schools (or universities) where students were sat passively in rows, receiving the wisdom from the teacher who was standing at a lectern. We wouldn’t expect to see rote learning on a large scale. To continue to teach in this way would be a betrayal of a generation.
But bringing us up to date – attendance is again a hot topic. In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have closed our classrooms and largely stopped face-to-face teaching. We now have the benefit of digital technologies to keep us connected and allow teaching to continue. But the big question is how to achieve this without reverting to the Victorian model of transmitting content. How do we maintain the dialogue? How do we engage with our students? How do we maintain our professional integrity and our professional values?
Covid-19 has forced our hand on this somewhat. But it will give us an opportunity to reassert what is important in our teaching. As my son recently told me, “it’s not about the content – I can get that anywhere! It’s about the experience.” So how do we promote the university experience online? Probably not by just stuffing our VLEs with content. The online world does free us from some of the constraints of the physical world. For example, there is no reason why lectures should be one hour long – that is just an artifact of the timetable and the issues of moving students in and out of classrooms. We don’t need to do that online. Perhaps shorter and more focused ‘lectures’ would be better? But our energy has to be spent on developing the experience – not developing ever more content. So the question is – what experience do we want to offer?