Change is not always as good as a rest

July 5, 2002

The 2002 National Teaching Fellowship awards will be presented on July 9. Below, two of the winners discuss their changing roles as higher education moves towards mass participation.

Airline pilots are tested in a flight simulator every six months to demonstrate that their skills are still current. The test might involve a simulated emergency such as an engine fire. When alarms ring and warning lights flash, the pilot has to act quickly. Really devious examiners might throw in another problem such as a fuel emergency. If dealing with one change is difficult, dealing with two simultaneous changes is more than twice as difficult. Academics in higher education are having to cope with four big changes at once: changes in the curriculum, the organisation of higher education, the students and the use of technology.

I teach computer science - a subject that advances so rapidly that you might be up-to-date when you set off in the morning, but find your knowledge is obsolete when you arrive at work. When I started teaching in the late 1970s, it was still possible to grasp most of the threads of computer science. That is no longer the case. Not only has the number of fields increased, but so has the depth and detail. In 1980, the detailed operation of a typical microprocessor could be described in a 20-page data manual. Today, that manual might be 700 pages. Even if you manage to teach the basics, the development tools you use to give a student hands-on experience of microprocessors can prove a handicap. Complex chips require sophisticated development tools, the workings of which would take weeks to explain.

If the rapid growth of computer science is change number one, change number two is a rapidly shifting environment. Life was simple in 1976 - just a couple of departmental meetings, an end-of-year exam and an exam board. Now we stagger from meeting to meeting. We teach half a dozen degrees, each with course, progress, module and exam boards. We have research meetings and discussion groups on teaching methods and forward planning, committees to choose a first-year language, industrial placementI and then there is quality control.

The students are also changing. First, there are more of them. In 1976, you might get a cosy final-year module with a dozen students. We sometimes enter a lecture room with 200 or more students. Second, you cannot assume that all students have the same level of prior knowledge. For the first time, I have found myself having to worry about the use of English when setting exams. A student told me he could not answer a question about "memory hierarchy" because he did not know what "hierarchy" meant.

Coping with a wide range of student ability makes life interesting because you have to set exams that challenge the good without alienating the less able. We are not here just to grade students, we are here to get the best out of each of them.

Of course, Idon't mean "students", I mean "customers". That is not necessarily a bad thing because a student once had all the rights of a heretic at the Inquisition. But sometimes the customers are a bit more interested in their rights than in their obligations.

So, what we teach, who we teach and how we teach have all changed.

When I started teaching, I was handed a timetable, the previous year's exam paper, a box of chalk and an eraser. That was all the help I got. In this age of the high-tech classroom, students expect desktop-published lecture notes with diagrams of a quality that would impress the average fine artist. I've known some lecturers to create animated presentations.

We also have to utilise the internet. I've put lecture notes, tutorials and presentations online. This is not a trivial activity. It takes a lot of time to reformat notes and to supply the hyperlinks that connect one section to another - but it does mean that students can access teaching materials from anywhere at any time.

It is not yet clear just how much this labour-intensive new-tech improves education. When I went from writing on the blackboard to providing printed lecture notes, I found that a goodly fraction of the students who had demanded notes simply regarded them as a sort of totem. They thought that the mere possession of this totem would guarantee an exam pass. There is a similar danger with internet-based teaching. Students enjoy dabbling with the technology and may end up understanding the medium without absorbing the message. On the other hand, the new technology enables students to visualise difficult concepts that they once would have found impenetrable.

While all these changes make academic life both exciting and stressful, one thing that has not changed is the number of hours in the day and the number of days in the year. We work longer hours, most weekends and much of the so-called vacation. All the fat has been squeezed out of the system - I cannot go to bed any later and still drag myself in in the morning. We have been told to modify our teaching techniques to cope with the new increases. How? We need more time to deal with the existing changes, let alone teach even larger classes with a wider range of students.

Alan Clements is professor of computing at the University of Teesside.

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