An end to excellent suspicions

August 1, 1997

Su White praises the Dearing report's call for a professional institute for learning and teaching but believes a deeper cultural change is needed

If Dearing achieves one thing, apart from making students pay towards their fees, it will have been to put learning before teaching, most prominently in the suggested professional institute for learning and teaching.

I like the vision which "puts students at the centre of the process of learning and teaching", and I love the call for "a radical change in attitudes to teaching". When these changes happen the work of staff and educational developers will become much simpler. I shall be delighted when the additional money arrives to fund the support and training for professional development in teaching and the use of communication and information technologies. But I do wonder how we are going to achieve these changes. And by the way, who is going to give us the money?

The problem the vision throws up is how to achieve change from within, because I do not believe it can be imposed from outside. In that sense the proposal for a professional institute for learning and teaching in higher education is a mechanistic solution. How will this vision be realised?

I am with Sir Ron all the way in proposing that we "accredit professional achievement in the management of learning and teaching", and I know that this, like many of his suggestions for the institute (commissioning research and development work into learning and teaching practices, stimulating innovation and co-ordinating the development of innovative learning materials) is at the heart of what forward-thinking staff and educational developers are working towards.

More than that, there is already a learning and teaching community, fostered by the funding councils through initiatives such as the Computers and Teaching Initiative, the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme, the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning, the Teaching and Learning Technology Support Network and the Learning Technology Dissemination Initiative. It is supported by individual academics through groups such as the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) and the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA). The objective for many of these was initially the addition of technology into the learning and teaching equation, but when the approach and achievements of these groups' participants is examined, learning and teaching is at the forefront, and technology merely a comfortable companion.

There are many individuals, including "research active", who do put students at the centre of the learning and teaching process, and who do value teaching. However in the realpolitik of academic life, these attitudes are sometimes muted. The learning and teaching community therefore constitutes a minority within the wider academic community.

If we are to change the value of learning and teaching we will have to deal with larger cultural problems. We have to consider academic values and perhaps, dare I say, academic snobbery. We have to consider the real or imagined gap between academic departments and academic support services, and the diverse agenda which operates across our higher education institutions.

Possibly the funding councils and workaday academics are saying "why treat learning and teaching as an academic discipline any differently from other subjects?". Perhaps this is my own reservation which recognises that if learning and teaching is to be at the core of our academic practices it has to be a scholarly activity which functions as a discipline like any other.

Perhaps we do require a single focus to make great strides forward, perhaps a single independent institute avoids accreditation wars, but will it achieve the change we need? Part of the solution must be to break down a deep seated suspicion of anything cross-disciplinary. When academics have grasped the nettle of learning and teaching, the biggest barrier they face is the sceptical head of department, dean, vice chancellor or reward system which sees the value of excellence only within a subject specialism.

There are institutions which have embedded reward structures which recognise excellent teachers, but what new and effective drivers will the new institute generate? If we acknowledge that we not only require change, but the ownership of change throughout the sector, then we probably need something more than one shiny new institute.

Su White is teaching and learning technology coordinator, Interactive Learning Centre, University of Southampton (part of the TLTSN). She is a member of the SEDA executive.

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