From where I sit - Mass education: the good points

November 4, 2010

I wonder what university teaching will look like in, say, 10 years?

Will the age-old system continue, in which a lecturer pontificates from a lectern for an hour or two and tutors of varying ability and with minimal or no training try to make sense of it all in tutorials?

I'm a (contract) lecturer, so naturally I'm in favour of lectures. There are few enough jobs going around for us to be doing ourselves out of them. But I wonder how relevant this system is today.

To be fair, lectures are often much more interesting now than when I was an undergraduate student.

Some of the slide shows are great and some lecturers even play YouTube clips to lighten the mood, illustrate points and engage with students.

The lecture-tutorial system, however, was invented long before there were audio-visual recording capabilities in lecture theatres.

In my day (1980s New Zealand), you had to turn up to the lecture and take notes: there were no handouts, slides or recordings. If you missed a lecture, you had to prevail upon a kind friend for their notes - and hope their scribblings were adequate.

Back then, the lecture was considered the most important part of the learning process and you went to tutorials only if you felt like it.

During the past three years, at least at the university where I have been working, we have been told that the tutorial is the most important teaching tool.

It is compulsory to attend 75 per cent of tutorials and students who don't must bring medical certificates to justify their absence. They can do what they like about lectures - attend, listen to recorded versions, or neither.

But the times they are a-changin'. Because of cost-cutting to reduce the university's debt, my school is axing tutorials for second- and third-year students.

In place of lectures for all and tutorials for no more than 23 students, there will be a combined two-hour "seminar", led by one person, for up to 80 students at a time. In big classes, it is possible that attendance records may no longer be kept.

Everyone was shocked by this move for the obvious reasons - sessionals will lose their work and teaching is generally considered more effective in smaller not larger classes.

After the initial shock wore off, I decided, Pollyanna that I am, to see if I could come up with any positives for the new system (since we don't have a choice, we may as well make the best of it).

Here is my list of the good points:

• Flexibility of teaching methods: sometimes an hour's lecture is too long and sometimes it is not long enough. Lectures and tutorials could overlap and intertwine, with more opportunities to screen short films or use other media.

• Time efficiency: today, students often have to turn up at lectures and tutorials hours or even days apart. This will no longer be the case.

• Anonymity: students who don't want to answer questions will be able to avoid them easily. Educators may baulk at this, but many students tell me they hate tutorial exercises in which they are forced to speak.

There, that doesn't sound so bad...does it?

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