THE Campus Live ANZ: block teaching scale-up ‘a learning process’

Australian pioneers of institutional-scale block teaching say expansion forced refinements of the model

August 17, 2022
Adam Shoemaker VU Victoria University

Australia’s “block” university says it underestimated staff resistance when it expanded the block teaching model “across the board” after successes with its first-year cohorts exceeded expectations.

In block teaching, students learn one subject at a time in intensive bursts of several weeks. The approach was pioneered 50 years ago by Colorado College in the US, but Victoria University (VU) has rolled it out at a scale unmatched elsewhere.

Vice-chancellor Adam Shoemaker said that while block teaching was usually seen as a timetabling innovation, it was a “very different sort of pedagogy” with spin-offs in student well-being as well as retention, grades and employability.

He said the lack of large-scale lectures or exams reduced pressure on students who often came from disadvantaged suburbs and spoke English as a third language. “Special consideration requests have gone down 80 per cent,” he told THE Campus Live ANZ, hosted this year by VU.

He said his university’s version of the block model “could be exported to any like environment in the world”. But he acknowledged that the block teaching rollout to second- and third-year students had not been “quite as smooth” as with commencing cohorts.

Deputy vice-chancellor John Germov said this was partly because of problems with staff buy-in. He said the “key to success” in the early stages of the model had been the interdisciplinary first-year college, staffed by teaching-focused academics with a passion for helping new students navigate their introductory year.

It was in effect a “self-selecting group”, Professor Germov said. “First-year college staff actively chose to…go with the model. They became its most passionate advocates.”

But staff in the more traditionally disciplinary “senior colleges”, where students progressed after first year, were less convinced. “Some people came on board…but others referred to it as ‘being blocked’.

“Academics have their disciplinary identity, and they want to liaise and work with their colleagues. In some areas, this worked seamlessly; others not. We didn’t consider significantly enough how to facilitate that. We just assumed it would happen.”

Latter-year teachers also struggled to maintain their research alongside a “quite exhausting” mode of interactive teaching. “Some staff have been able to manage it when they’re delivering the block. Others have found that it’s very challenging to…keep their research going. It’s something we’re still working through.”

VU is experimenting with other changes to the model, including online block teaching. Professor Germov said the original intention had been to deliver block teaching mostly face-to-face “because it was seen as a key element of retention”. But when coronavirus forced a retreat to remote delivery, retention figures had “held up”.

At the postgraduate level, online blocks are being delivered over eight weeks – rather than the customary four – to suit students with jobs. But this “part-time” mode of block teaching seems unsuitable for undergraduates, he said. “When you’re doing the block, it’s pretty intense.”

In New Zealand, the University of Canterbury has introduced another variation where postgraduates intersperse intensive blocks of face-to-face learning with longer periods of online study.

Vice-chancellor Cheryl de la Rey said the university had conceived the approach after coronavirus had forced it to “create more flexibility” in its international education programmes. “It took the pandemic to push us into that space in a much more deliberate and purposeful way,” she told the conference.

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