The English funding council is pouring Pounds 8 million into projects to enhance teaching. Alison Utley reports. NEARLY everyone from the medievalists to the medics agrees that university teaching methods have got to change. Rapidly and radically.
But there the consensus ends. Should the lecture be abandoned? Is technology really a substitute for talking? How is real learning best achieved? And how can lecturers find out whether what they do every day actually works?
What has emerged quite clearly from a new Pounds 8 million programme to improve teaching and learning is that teachers in higher education are continually reinventing the wheel in their quest to better their students' experience.
Graham Gibbs is national coordinator for the Funding Teaching and Learning Programme (FTLP). This is an initiative by the Higher Education Funding Council for England under which 44 projects have received up to Pounds 250,000 each to stimulate improvements to teaching and learning methods - and more importantly to encourage the spread of ideas.
Professor Gibbs says teaching expertise must improve dramatically if lecturers are to stop repeating the same classroom experiments. "Teaching developments are going on all over the place but the results are not shared," he says. "Many a trick is missed."
He argues that this is a direct consequence of the university culture of autonomy that often actively discourages the spread of ideas across the sector.
In an attempt to encourage co-operation all the phase one winners of the FTLP will gather today in Nottingham. The programme is the first link the funding council has made between funding and teaching quality. In order to be eligible applicants must have received excellent quality ratings in their teaching assessments.
Bids for the initiative were invited in December 1995. HEFCE has committed the Pounds 8 million over the two years 1996/97 and 1997/98. From then on it will become a rolling programme. Once a quality assessment round has been completed, subjects assessed may become eligible for support under the next phase. Phase two projects are expected to begin in October of this year.
Professor Gibbs said the idea had been widely welcomed. "With all the recent attention paid to research assessment no one has actually pointed out that most lecturers are not research active. However, the funds to support teaching are far smaller. Research is where the rewards are."
The FTLP is a sign of a shift away from the research bias. This is particularly good news for the former polytechnics which tend to miss out in the struggle for research prizes, he says.
But while the FTLP can play an important part in improving the status of teaching, Professor Gibbs stresses that it alone can not bring about the changes needed.
Various projects have received awards in all kinds of institutions, from developing reflective practice in history at Bath College of Higher Education to effective project work in computer science at the University of Kent.
Huddersfield University has received two awards, one in computer-assisted musical awareness and another focusing on improvements to student learning through sandwich placements. The University of East Anglia, Sheffield Hallam and Southampton universities have also received two awards each and York has three, in architecture, heritage studies and the teaching of interview skills.
Almost half of the projects are led by new universities, which tended to submit very different ideas to those of older institutions. The new universities have a history of educational development programmes and collaboration with colleges of higher education.
In contrast, older universities have had the resources to develop teaching quality within their own departments and any innovations have tended to stay there.
To get programme backing, the skills demonstrated must be readily transferable, not just for elite institutions. "We need to know not just whether people are good at teaching Egyptology but whether they are good at influencing others," Professor Gibbs says.