And the first prize goes to...teaching

July 7, 2000

The National Teaching Fellowships Scheme is shortly to award its first 20 prizes. But, as Jennifer Currie reports, the winners see the awards less as personal gain than as a tribute to their profession

After a fortnight of film shoots, media attention and champagne-drenched celebrations, the 20 winners of the first National Teaching Fellowships Scheme will attempt to return to normality, despite their new-found glamour status as household names in the teaching world.

Inspirational and hard-working, with track records of excellence, these academics had to prove to a national advisory panel that they were worth every penny of the individual Pounds 50,000 prizes, which are to be presented to the winners by education minister Baroness Blackstone at an awards ceremony in London next week.

Long regarded as the poor relation of research, university teaching has had to wait a while for its first taste of glory on a national scale. The arrival of the NTFS may be belated in the eyes of teaching's staunchest supporters, yet its creation is indicative of a growing awareness that the teaching and research imbalance is in need of redress.

The Institute for Learning and Teaching may have labelled these awards as individual rather than institutional accolades, but it is already clear that the teaching community is accepting them as a communal pat on the back. "I have had emails and postcards from colleagues from all over the country saying that this is great for the subject as a whole," says Jayne Stevens, NTFS winner and principal lecturer in performing arts at De Montfort University. "There is a sense among people who are involved in teaching that there is a need for this kind of recognition, although it is accepted that teaching is more difficult to recognise. At least with research, an artefact or article is produced, but it is not as straightforward with teaching," she says.

It is ironic that the Pounds 50,000 fellowships can be used to buy some time out from hectic teaching schedules, in order to afford academics the breathing space to carry out research into their current teaching practices.

Rob Pope, an English professor at Oxford Brookes University, thinks that the scheme will let teachers get back to what they are best at. "With this award I can now do all of the things that I should really be doing all of the time, but cannot because I am run ragged by the ever deeper ravages of audit-culture. I feel very privileged to have been given this chance, but I recognise that there are umpteen people in this institution, let alone this country, who are equally deserving of this award."

Roger Carpenter, a self-confessed "mad scientist and artiste extraordinaire", also teaches neurophysiology at Cambridge University. He thinks that it is time for good teaching to be recognised as a valid route to promotion. He says: "I believe that a university's primary function is to teach and to encourage students to learn, but values in higher education seem to have been distorted during recent years. We all feel tremendous pressure to spend as little time as possible on teaching because research is where the big money is.

"Only a small number of people are interested in becoming the next generation of university teachers. This is not just a financial thing, it is cultural - and attitudes have to change if we want to ensure we have a supply of good teachers."

Another negative factor may be the image of university teaching as the sole province of intellectual giants, when, according to Peter Edwards, a lecturer in mathematics at Bournemouth University, the reality is often far different. "I was hopeless at school and only managed to pass my O and A levels after a couple of attempts. I suffered because I did not understand and did not work hard enough. But I have found that my students get a lot of hope from my story and that I can empathise with those who are not doing very well, perhaps more so than my colleagues who have gone straight from a first-class degree to a PhD and then into teaching," Edwards says.

Teaching will never be able to bring as much money into institutions as research, but the impact that good teaching can have on staff and students alike and the role of teachers as educators, mentors and classroom-based innovators should not be underestimated.

Paul Hyland, a history lecturer at Bath Spa University, says: "Any teacher who thinks that good teaching doesn't really matter, or that teaching and learning cannot be enhanced because we often work under less than ideal conditions, should spend a few minutes listening to their students."

If one thing is missing from the remit of the NTFS scheme, the fellowship holders say, it is an emphasis on the role of teamwork in good teaching. Promoting pedagogic superstars is all very well and good, they argue, as long as the profession as a whole is embraced.

Keith Hirst, from Southampton University's maths department, hopes that the awards will continue. He says: "My award belongs to my department because none of us works in isolation. I do believe that the scheme has the potential to have a great public impact and to act as a signal to the outside world that higher education regards teaching as important. What a great use of Pounds 1 million."

HOW THEY WILL SPEND THE AWARDS

Mick Short,professor of linguistics, Lancaster University

I want to develop a web-based introductory course in stylistics and use it, alongside my traditional lecture-seminar course, to investigate the strengths and weaknesses of these different forms of teaching in my area. The idea is to compare the reactions of groups of students working in the modes.

Mick Healey, professor ofgeography,Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education

I am planning to examine "the development of the scholarship of teaching in higher education". Some of the money will pay for a study trip to North America and Australasia, where the aim is to identify examples of good practice that may be transferable to a British context.

Rob Pope, professor of English, Oxford Brookes University

My project involves interactive learning and the use of critical and creative writing techniques across a number of disciplines. I hope that students will use the resource as a means of developing their knowledge of English studies beyond what their lecturers tell them.

Desmond Hunter, senior lecturer in music, University of Ulster

The assessment of performance within an academic context has not been the subject of a systematic inquiry, although the basis on which examiners arrive at their marks continues to provoke discussion and debate. My research project will build on work already under way at the university.

Keith Hirst, lecturer inmathematics, Southampton University

Staff in higher education are under pressure to harness technology to help their teaching, so I plan to develop a web-based maths teaching resource to help them do so. I want to involve staff and students from the engineering department, as well as buying in the time of a systems programmer with a mathematical background.

Peter Edwards, lecturer inmathematics, school of design, engineering and computing, Bournemouth University

I started to develop an online tutorial programme last year with a Pounds 15,000 teaching award from our own fellowship scheme. It aims to deepen students' understanding of mathematics. I plan to take on one of our third-year students as part of their industrial placement, as well as buying in a software engineer and the necessary equipment.

Maggie Nichol, lecturer in nursing, City University

Two of the main problem areas of clinical practice for nursing students are blood pressure and drug calculation. I am working on an interactive CD-Rom learning package to improve student competence. We hope that it will enhance patient care and develop genuine practical skills.

Roger Carpenter, lecturer in neurophysiology, Cambridge University

Entrance to medical schools is very competitive, and applicants come from a huge variety of backgrounds with different levels of knowledge, which can cause problems at the start of term. We think it is possible to get them all to the starting point together by developing a set of free, online modules that pinpoint particular problem areas.

Viv Anderson, senior lecturer, school of professional education and development, Leeds Metropolitan University

I am going to develop a skills-for-learning website to support students both on and off campus in their personal development and employer skills. Part of the project will involve looking at how mature students feel about approaching computers for the first time and helping them to develop a basic level of understanding.

Susan Lea,lecturer in psychology, Plymouth University

I want to explore what is really meant by student-centred learning by looking at the perceptions and experiences of both staff and students in this area. Some of the money will fund a study tour to look at putting student-centred learning into practice.

Patricia Egerton, lecturer in mathematics, Teesside University

Maths is at the heart of our culture and consequently it can be included in a wide range of degrees. I want to explore how well we support the mathematical learning of students, whatever their degree specialism or entry qualifications.

Carol McGuinness, lecturer in psychology, Queen's University, Belfast

Like any area of expertise, teaching needs considerable practice and feedback, not only from students but also from colleagues. I plan to develop a systematic framework for analysing different kinds of peer review, as a means of supporting and developing high-quality teaching.

Jayne Stevens, principal lecturer in performing arts, De Montfort University

I already have a number of practical teaching and learning projects under way and so I hope that this award will support them in a much more theoretical way. Dance is a very volatile and fluid subject area, and this fellowship will give me the opportunity to investigate, reflect and consider the issues involved in my practical work.

John Klapper, director, modern languages, Birmingham University

I want to create online training modules for HE language teachers for both initial training and continuing staff development. The aim is to provide language-specific courses to complement the university's generic learning and teaching certificates.

Terry King, senior lecturer, information systems, Portsmouth University

I don't really want to stop teaching, so I have appointed a research assistant to help me develop some multimedia courses online. Most students find distance learning really difficult. I want to make it easier by keeping the social and group links very strong.

Peter Hartley, head of academic policy, school of cultural studies, Sheffield Hallam University

While students will be able to practise their interview skills with our multimedia package, tutors can use our computer conferencing strategies to generate genuine dialogue. We will also be examining the educational significance of other multimedia materials.

Angela Smallwood, lecturer in English studies, Nottingham University

I am going to ask specialist colleagues to join a national task force, the Skills Interface Project, which will publish strategic papers and resource materials to help academics design personal development plans aimed at students, such as generic and employability skills.

Bill Hutchings, lecturer in English, Manchester University

I aim to encourage students to develop their critical skills through cooperative learning and to provide them with the means to learn independently. I will appoint a research assistant to help me test models of problem-based learning to see how easily they can be applied to literary studies.

Paul Hyland, lecturer in history, Bath Spa University

The money will fund a small team of teachers and researchers to investigate the goals, views and practices of teachers who are recognised as excellent or innovative. We aim to promote an understanding of good practice and want to show what individuals, departments and institutions can do to achieve excellence.

Reg Jordan, director of medical studies, Newcastle University

The funds will be used to support the evaluation of a networked learning environment in medical and health-care education. This will help us evaluate the effectiveness of virtual learning environments for those students studying at remote clinical sites.

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