Drive-through culture warning

July 6, 2007

Academics who deliver lectures via the internet risk turning institutions into "drive-through universities", teaching experts will hear this week.

Glen Thomas, a senior lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, says lecturers are increasingly faced with the challenge of teaching "the absent student", with online delivery being seen as a substitute for attending classes.

Students are "digitally rather than physically present in lectures," he said.

Speaking at the Higher Education Academy's annual conference this week, Dr Thomas will suggest that the move to online forms of delivery is consistent with the shift to the notion of the student as a consumer. He will cite the work of Edward Tufte, who has argued that PowerPoint creates a cognitive style that is more oriented towards marketing.

"In some ways, the idea of the student as a consumer is quite logical, given that UK and Australian students will graduate from their degrees with substantial levels of debt," he told The Times Higher .

"However, one of the outcomes of this positioning, which I confess I dislike intensely, is the rise of what is being called the 'drive-through university'," he added.

"Students are increasingly absent from classes because of the perception that once the lecture notes or slides are in hand, then there is no need to attend classes."

Dr Thomas said he did not want to fall into a "generational moan" about students, but he does believe that the attitudes of students towards learning have changed.

"Some of my colleagues look forward to the day when universities no longer have a physical presence, but for my students that would be a dreadful thing," he added. "To engage students in their learning requires a willingness on the part of both academics and students to privilege learning experience rather than learning convenience."

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