Leader: A personal level must be retained

An intimate learning relationship is much valued. UK universities cannot afford to lose it - despite the pressures of massification

May 7, 2009

How important is it in 2009 to see students face to face outside lectures? After all, these are members of the Twittering classes: most are on Facebook, and they send tweets, texts and emails.

There may be some complaints about their general literacy levels; but there's no doubt about their web literacy and their ease in the digital world. Nonetheless, it seems that in learning they still desire a traditional approach - face to face - albeit in a modern, web-supported setting. Personal contact, like they received at school, is what they came to university for - and, importantly, what they believe they are paying for.

That intimate pedagogical relationship between students and their teachers is a distinctive feature of the British system. It is what lures many foreign students to our shores and distinguishes us from our European cousins. But it is under threat. One study says that staff-to-student ratios have worsened by 10 to 15 per cent in the past 15 years. And the latest report on students' academic experience by the Higher Education Policy Institute says that although there has been an increase in the number of lessons taught in small groups since 2006-07, there has been no rise in the amount of formal contact with academics despite the increased fees that students now pay.

If staff-to-student ratios continue to deteriorate, it won't be long before we reach tipping point and lose our valuable reputation. Our standing abroad may already be suffering, being masked only by the value of the pound.

It would be tempting to harness student enthusiasm for the digital world and use e-learning as a tool to help relieve some of this pressure, but there are problems with such an approach: students will view it warily if they suspect it is being employed to save staff time, and some lecturers lack the interest or the enthusiasm to embrace it, as a committee set up to examine the impact of Web 2.0 on higher education has found.

There is a "digital divide" when it comes to the creative and constructive use of social networking in teaching. Some academics have taken to it (one even plans to answer students' tweets during lectures), but for many others, used to the rigour of peer review, its informal nature is proving tough to get to grips with.

But difficult or not, teachers must engage or lose control: much of the discussion that previously took place in the class is now taking place in cyberspace without them. The committee suggests a novel solution: inverting the relationship and getting the students to teach their tutors how to use the technology.

Those lecturers who embrace Web 2.0 can get almost a "celebrity" following via Twitter, making an encounter all the more anticipated. Which brings us to a strange conclusion: far from killing off personal contact, online communication is making it more valuable: students see a hierarchy in communicating with their tutors, and face-to-face contact sits at the top.

In a mass system under pressure from all sides, it is all too easy to let personal interactions slip. Does it matter if lecturers know students by name or by numbers in marking codes? Yes, it does to the students - and it should to us. Get to know the names, and we get the numbers. It's as simple as that.

Here in the UK we have something really special. Let's not throw it away.


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