Batting for learning the limited-over way

August 21, 1998

In the late 1950s the English started to realise that the loss of Empire inevitably affected cricket. It was a leisurely pastime that had to change for the modern world. The limited-over variation was gradually introduced. Aficionados claimed it would ruin the purity of the game. Thirty years later floodlit matches came into being. Psychedelic cricket entered the high-tech media age as blue and yellow track suits replaced traditional whites.

Some may feel that cricket was the last bastion of 19th-century British tradition to fall but it was reflective only of a change in culture that was affecting all levels of life. We were to enter the bite-size age in which the process of learning was to alter in a fundamental way. Educational change moved at a slower rate than cricket. I recall a study leaflet to undergraduates in the 1960s that began: "Vacations are not holidays. They are work periods." By "work" the author meant "reading and reflection". But for the middle-class students, "work" meant a summer job in a wallpaper warehouse or a pub. For the working class it meant one of the reasons why many could still not attend university. Money had to be earned for the home.

Mass higher education in changing the culture has demanded also a change in the nature of university experience. The new form of learning introduced to combat the financial and academic pressures of a mass system is modularity. Eighty per cent of British universities have now "gone modular". Many have yet to accept that modularity is not a matter merely of unitising linear courses but a different form of learning in which the student takes control. The lecturer is no longer seen as a fount of wisdom but just one element of a learning resource centre called a university. Access does not mean only that all strata of society can participate in higher education but that all elements of the university are accessible. The shift is from the autonomy of the subject to the autonomy of the learning experience.

This challenges traditional thinking. It is why questions have been asked about the continuance of degree classification and the appropriateness of the honours system. A transcript of achievement might give potential employers a better understanding of a candidate's ability.

The concept of final examinations becomes anathema. Assessing the module in its own right puts pressure on the traditional use of the external examiner. His or her job is no longer one as the final arbitrator of the individual student's degree classification but one of benchmarking standards throughout the learning experience. Yet many external examiners on modular degrees are still being used as if they were assessing linear programmes.

A senior manager cynically remarked that he was "in favour of diversity". What I suspect he was implying was his support of the equivalent of five-day cricket. Through his use of the word "diversity" he was justifying an anachronism. He was mistaken to do so. The judgement on ivy-league universities cannot be made through league tables relating to the diverse system of British higher education.

Comparisons have to be made with a wider constituency. How does a traditional university compare with its international competitors? What is its commercial out-turn? How does it compare with world-class research and/or teaching institutions? How do the modern universities compare with the successful community universities in the United States? What is the mission of those universities that are neither traditional nor new? How do they define their purpose in relation to vocational demand? These are questions of flexibility and market that accompany the new learning. Modularity is here to stay.

Michael Scott is a pro vice-chancellor of De Montfort University. He writes in a personal capacity.

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