Pedagogic paupers: where’s the distinctiveness?

When you scan a range of university web sites, they all seem to claim their institution offers a distinctive student experience. In many respects, this may be true. However, when it comes to pedagogy, I wonder if there has been a trend towards homogenisation rather than distinctiveness?

Pressures of work and the emphasis on research outputs appears to drive many academics to “play it safe” when it comes to classroom practice. The irony is that these same academics would claim to be serious researchers – people to reflect, innovate, question and experiment. And yet these ‘researcher traits’ don’t seem to be carried over into teaching. The ‘it’ll do’ sentiment of the unenthusiastic amateur seems all too common, though (I would hasten to add) not universal.

I would not for one moment claim that the pressures on university academics are not real, the squeeze on resources and the restrictions posed by accrediting bodies (for example) all appear to drive academics towards a conservative approach to teaching. The old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to be the underpinning philosophy for many.

However, my own undergraduate friends and relatives often provide me with stories and anecdotes that suggest that, if not broken, much university teaching still requires something of an upgrade. A lot of teaching seems very ‘samey’, a lecture dominated by PowerPoint slides followed by a seminar or a practical. Within this pattern, there is also little diversity on lecture structure, with emphasis on the transmission of content that is also available on the VLE and in the course textbook. Little exposure to the personal, expert knowledge of the teacher. And isn’t that the point of being taught by an expert, and separating higher education from school?

For many of us teaching in universities now, the 20th century seems like yesterday. However, within a couple of years we will have reached the point where our new undergraduates will have been born in the 21st century. It reminds me of the line in The Simpsons where Lisa meets Paul McCartney and tells him that she had studied him in history classes. For those of you who think The Beatles still represent contemporary pop culture, here’s the news – they don’t.

So are we ready for the first cohort of 21st century students Рthe most connected generation that we have ever known. They are used to a world in which what is taught in Los Angeles can be instantly shared with Adelaide, sent back to London and discussed in Cape Town, all before the lecture in L.A. has even ended. Is academia ready for this? My recent experience from the world of research suggests not. This is a world in which the cutting edge research I submitted that was accepted for publication in a journal 10 months ago has still not been published online (with another year before it appears in print). It seems that elements of academia are still rooted in the 20th century pace of communication, or earlier.

So does this slowness in research evolution end up slowing down the development of university pedagogy? I can see no real reason for the evolution in teaching practice to be so slow. With universities in the UK now having academic development as part of the discourse on learning and teaching, there is help at hand. There is also an enormous body of pedagogic research that is available to academics if only they want to access it. Academics should be keen to develop their teaching (and not just think that is a box that has been ticked) rather than wait for government to impose mechanisms to force development (see comment on the TEF in earlier posts). If we are to operate in a research-led teaching culture, then the speed of development of teaching and research should surely be aligned in some way. Or perhaps a culture of teaching-led research should be the new order?

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