Good with the chalk, then say 'cheese'

March 13, 1998

THEIDEA of showing video footage of star lecturers to give all students an experience of outstanding teaching is outdated and could do m ore harm than good, according to learning experts.

In its response to the Dearing report, the government said it wanted to establish a national scheme to make outstanding lectures available on film or video as "an important way of improving the quality of teaching".

The government said: "While most teaching in higher education will continue to be done by local teachers, students should also have the chance of hearing outstanding lectures from elsewhere, for example on film, video or via broadcasting."

The response acknowledged that there can be no "central imposition of teaching material", and added, "all that can be done centrally is to promote the availability of good material from which each university or college can choose."

It is understood that the proposal was recently floated as education minister Baroness Blackstone's idea in a private meeting.

But the suggestion that universities should identify star performers to be enjoyed by the masses elsewhere is being dismissed as misconceived.

"This idea is underpinned by a discredited model of learning which died a long time ago," said David Baume, co-director of The Open University's centre for higher education practice. "The very best of teaching is bi-directional and interactive, it is not like watching television."

Fellow co-director Graham Gibbs went further. "This will have a negative impact overall, it is worse than useless and will misorient attention," he said.

The Open University long ago abandoned broadcasting talking heads because they were too dreary and could not hope to capture good teaching, which Professor Baume stressed was an active process.

The scheme would attach a spurious technical glamour and air of show business to university teaching, he added. It also reinforced the "misconceived idea" that learning was about conveying information through a lecture in a passive way.

"This is typical of what happens when you identify a solution without properly understanding the problem," Professor Baume said.

Other objections to the scheme have also been raised, not least around the selection criteria for outstanding teachers.

Asking universities for instance to identify their star performers would be divisive because by implication all the other lecturers would be rated second best.

Gus Pennington, head of the Universities and Colleges Staff Development Agency, said that one department's star is not necessarily another's. Being recognised as a star performer in, say a Cambridge University final-year philosophy course, bears little relationship to a star in an inner-city access course.

"We should not reject this idea out of hand as it may become one of a number of ways of improving the quality of learning but it does need very careful thought," Professor Pennington said.

Joss Darling, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at Bath University recently won an award there for outstanding teaching. Bath has been running its annual star lecturer scheme for five years in recognition of teaching excellence and candidates are selected on the basis of a student poll.

"The prestige attached to this award is very important," Dr Darling said. "Half the fun of teaching in a university is experimenting with new ideas and techniques. That's how you find out what works for students."

The soon-to-be-established Institute for Learning and Teaching will be asked by the government to consider organising a national scheme to get the films made and distributed.

Joanna de Groot, vice chair of the institute's planning group, was also cautious about the idea. "Subjects and students are changing all the time and learning does not just rely on a few talented individuals. A modern understanding of students' learning centres on an interactive model rather than a mere absorbing of someone else's words," she said.

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