Rapid block teaching uptake ‘dispels sector inertia myth’

Snap adoption of new teaching model, after half a century of gestation, shows that universities can get things done quickly

二月 9, 2023
Building blocks
Source: iStock

The rapid uptake of “block teaching” shows that universities are not the sluggish “monoliths” they are disparaged as, according to one of the model’s key advocates.

Victoria University (VU) academic John Weldon says the block model, where subjects are studied sequentially in intensive blocks of several weeks, has proven immune to the inertia that plagues universities.

As head of curriculum for its first-year college, Dr Weldon played a critical role in VU’s snap adoption of block teaching, which was introduced for first-year undergraduates in 2018 and expanded to all qualification levels over three years.

But an International Block and Intensive Learning and Teaching Association conference heard that this was slow by international standards.

Ellen Buck, director of learning and teaching at the University of Suffolk, said her institution had needed just four months to pilot block teaching after its vice-chancellor proposed the idea in May 2020. “What could have taken years to effect needed to happen, and did happen almost overnight,” she said.

Dr Weldon said De Montfort University in Leicester had required “a matter of days” to produce the “skeleton” of a block model. By contrast, VU had “bootcamped” the concept for a month and transformed its offerings over half a year. “But even that’s quite an amazingly quick turnaround for a university.

“There’s a real impetus that seems to help carry the change across. This idea that universities are monolithic QE2-like institutions that take three-and-a-half years to turn around isn’t necessarily the truth. Taking four years to think about how you change your operation to make it more user-friendly doesn’t cut it anymore.”

Uptake has been fast despite sometimes bitter opposition. VU encountered unexpected staff resistance when it expanded the scheme beyond first year, while De Montfort’s staff union branch criticised the rationale, cost and “rushed” implementation of the “micro-managed” system.

Dr Weldon said universities had adopted the model with a “make it happen” mindset. “If there are glitches, we’ll fix them as we go, but we can’t wait four years to plan every single moment of this. We know enough to get it done.”

The rapid adoption follows an extremely long gestation. Colorado College, which pioneered block teaching in the late 1960s, spent years as the sole exponent.

Colorado College English professor Steven Hayward, who produced a documentary on the evolution of block teaching, told the conference that he had become accustomed to the “awkward silence” that followed any attempt to explain the model. “They seem not just to be taking it in but weighing it – thinking, would it work?”

Dr Weldon said the model had “slept for a long time” as a one-off oddity. “Its time probably wasn’t right. Now, every university that’s of a smaller size is thinking, how do I offer something which is genuinely different and better, that fits into a student’s lifestyle more easily than traditional uni does?”

But the conference heard that block teaching sat uncomfortably with part-time study. “Traditionally, part-time meant studying fewer modules per year, which translated into fewer hours per week,” Dr Buck said. “In block, part-time study sees the same number of hours per week…but fewer blocks per year.”

Dr Weldon said VU was “still working through” this. “That traditional part-time [pattern] of three hours a week over 16 weeks, which fits very easily with carer responsibilities or work, is difficult to achieve in the block model. We don’t have an answer yet, other than offering evening classes where we can.”




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