Lectures’ days are numbered at Leeds as new v-c takes charge

Simone Buitendijk emphasises that efforts to improve diversity must not be left to under-represented groups as she takes top job at Yorkshire powerhouse

September 10, 2020
Simone Buitendijk
Source: University of Leeds

When Simone Buitendijk accepted the job of vice-chancellor at the University of Leeds, she had no inkling of the crisis that was about to hit the world and the global higher education sector.

“I interviewed before Covid, just before the crisis hit. I signed my contract when we didn’t know that it was coming,” she said, before quickly adding: “I would have signed it anyway.”

Starting a job as a new university leader is always a daunting task, but it is especially so at a time when teaching and research has been disrupted and even meeting colleagues and students is a challenge.

But Professor Buitendijk, who took over the top job at Leeds on 1 September after four years as vice-provost (education) at Imperial College London, said it was “important in any time of crisis that leaders don’t just look at the crisis right in front of them”.

“I want to think about how the University of Leeds can come out of the Covid crisis not just intact but actually better than we went in, and that means prioritising the things that I would have been doing anyway but are even more important now because of the Covid crisis,” she said.

Professor Buitendijk, who was vice-rector at Leiden University before her role at Imperial, is a champion of diversity in academia and teaching innovation. She co-authored the League of European Research Universities’ reports Women, Research and Universities: Excellence without gender bias (2012) and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at Universities: The power of a systemic approach (2019), and has written extensively about the need for universities to embrace technology in their teaching.

Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that at Leeds she plans to abolish the traditional lecture and take a systemic approach to tackling equality and diversity.

She said most universities were “looking at their online provision very much still in the emergency mode”, but institutions needed to ensure that “we match our pedagogy to the hybrid and online model much better than we are now doing”.

“The 45-minute lecture – it’s so outdated, its pedagogically not sound, it’s not evidence-based…And if you put that kind of delivery online, it’s even worse than when you do it in a lecture theatre. For me, that would be the worst of both worlds – to put 45-minute lectures online and say, ‘Here’s your university education,’” she said.

“So lectures will go at the University of Leeds, but they’ll be replaced with lecturing in shorter chunks, some of which will be watched by students before they come to the classroom, so while they’re together they can actually use the knowledge, the facts, the materials and become more creative and engaged with their teaching.”

On equality and diversity, Professor Buitendijk said it was vital to not leave this work to individuals, and “especially not to the under-represented minorities or the people who are in a worse position to begin with”.

“It’s not their responsibility to fix the problem. If they want to work with the leadership, that’s great; but it’s first and foremost an issue that the university leadership needs to embrace and talk about,” she said, adding that this work had to go much further than “removing a few bad apples from the community” or implementing “one single project”.

A systemic approach means reviewing “the curriculum that you teach, the way you engage with students in a more interactive classroom…the kind of research we’re doing, how we engage with the community around our university, what we reward and what we value, [and] how we admit students”, she said.

“All of these things need to start with a deep understanding of issues of inequality and where they come from. And how also to make the privileged majority understand it’s something we can all gain from. It’s not just a matter of fairness, it really is about an engaged, happy community and academic quality.”

Other key priorities for Professor Buitendijk include focusing on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, strengthening Leeds’ collaboration with universities in the Global South and treating students as partners, so they can contribute to ideas of how the university should operate in the future.

She also wants to encourage the university sector to carry forward the increased collaboration that has occurred during the pandemic.

“There’s still competition,” she said, referencing the race for a Covid-19 vaccine, “and I think there are still too many vested interests.”

But Professor Buitendijk said universities have far more similarities than differences and “it makes so much sense to work together”.

“It hasn’t really been that difficult to go from Leiden to Imperial and, I think, also from Imperial to Leeds. It feels like I’m right back at home again,” she said.

“I’ve even found that travelling to universities in China and on the Africa continent there is something that binds academics and universities and it’s really powerful.”



Print headline: Equality and end of lectures on agenda for new Leeds v-c

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Reader's comments (20)

In the 1980s I changed the format for my Lectures by telling students to read my book (Small Business and Entrepreneurship) as I was not going to read from my book. Instead I assumed that all students had read the current topic and I asked students what they thought about the topic and/or how to improve the knowledge and understanding of the issues. Then I asked another student what they thought of the previous student's comment. I put this information onto the white board, and by the end of the session the board was full of snippets, which I linked in a Informal Pattern to assist the students to grasp a strong understanding of the topic, and how they could apply what was discussed in their real life experiences. The class discussions always worked well because I had many years personal experience in running my own Small Businesses. Thus academic knowledge was combined with practical experience, which is what all classes should be discussing and questioning. QED
It is high time for educationist think holistically about the form and means of education which is socially relevant, sustainable and leading happy life. The social connect and responsibility of the youth is on decline and inviting severe problems. Education must be a solution to such problems rather contributor. Also we can't keep sports, extra-curricular and co-curricular activities out of education system. They are the best means of learning.
Seems somehow that in search of doing it better we have forgotten why we educate human beings. We do not do it to please ourselves or obtain job satisfaction or promote political ideologies but to better equip future generations to ensure the survival of the race.
It's a good idea to think about ways of innovating teaching, for sure. We all know the dull lecture as a time-consuming way of transferring notes from the pad of the lecturer to the pad of the student without passing through the minds of either, as they used to say. In the 17th Century the University of Tübingen issued a rule saying lecturers were not allowed to read from textbooks during their lectures. The qualms are old. But book printing didn't end the live lecture. Neither will the digital age. When I think of my own most cherished memories of being taught as a student, some of the lectures I attended stand out with brilliant clarity. Listening, with physical presence, to the well articulated thinking of someone in your chosen field who has gone further than you have is one of the most direct and involved ways of learning and communicates a sense of reality of your studies like very few other media. There is also the small group discussion and the seminar, and many others, but hearing someone speak is one of the most effective and memorable ways of learning for many people. A.N. Whitehead, who revolutionised education at Imperial in the early 20th century, wrote (Modes of Thought, 1938): “In the production of sound, the lungs and throat are brought into play. So that in speech, while a superficial, manageable expression is diffused, yet the sense of the vague intimacies of organic existence is also excited. Thus voice-produced sound is a natural symbol for the deep experiences of organic existence. This sense of reality is of great importance for the effectiveness of symbolism. Personal interviews carry more weight than gramophone records. What an economy could be achieved if the faculties of colleges could be replaced by fifty gramophones an a few thousand records! Indeed, we might have expected that in the sixteenth century printed books would have replaced universities. On the contrary, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were an active period in the development of educational foundations. The sense of reality can never be adequately sustained amidst mere sensa, either of sound or of sight. The connexity of existence is of the essence of understanding.” If Covid teaching is teaching us as lectures anything it is that the connexity of existence requires physical presence, listening, speaking, and doing.
I find that for online learning, smaller (15-20 minute chunks) of recorded talking work best. However a GOOD lecture can work face to face. It needs to be entertaining, it needs to be interactive, it may involve group work or students presenting... with me it can get pretty lively :) (Alright, I confess, I'm researching the use of role-playing in teaching...) Like all reformers, particularly the ones who beat the diversity drum, it's important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Don't just say a blanket 'lectures = bad', instead look critically at what you are doing, seek to improve and adapt and modify... time for some action research, here.
All the above assumes that all lecturers are excellent teachers, which unfortunately might not always be the case....
Discarding the lecture is simply another part of the strategy of getting rid of faculty altogether.
Really? “Lectures’ days are numbered”? Surely there’ll be a democratic process here? Admin are far too keen on implementing vague ideas they’ve had for years - years spent bean-counting rather than teaching.
I'm afraid you can't simply apply such a blanket abolition of one modality of teaching. Not every lecturer is the same, not every discipline is the same, and as long as class sizes keep increasing but staff numbers remain stagnant you can't expect whole class discussion and engagement or even endless and repetitive small group teaching with 250+. Many staff DO need to drop didactic lectures as the quality is not great. Many universities need to enable alternatives in person by investing in more (and more varied and adaptive) learning spaces rather than forcing lectures to run by having no viable alternatives to the spaces and class sizes. But to "know" that lectures don't work and are pedagogically unsound is potentially short sighted, and shows diminishing faith in those who can lecture more effectively and with better student experience than any flipped classroom approach. It's akin with doing away with humanities subjects because they don't always lead to an obvious job afterwards. Leadership in university teaching is about empowering and enabling the best from its staff by utilising their skills, not taking away their ability to use their skills.
Nothing like a good 45-minute lecture. Problem is there aren’t enough good-uns out there.
Where is the evidence that the "45-minute lecture – it’s so outdated, its pedagogically not sound, it’s not evidence-based…And if you put that kind of delivery online, it’s even worse than when you do it in a lecture theatre"? This sounds very much like another neoliberal blanket criticism with no nuance or sound evidence to back it up to justify reducing face-to-face interactions between academics and students. In other words, another excuse to cut costs for a managerialist obsessed with the budget bottom line, rather than supporting academics to improve their teaching.
I too was wondering what the evidence is really. How sound is it? In principle all the information that is taught has been available without lecturers ever since books became widespread and the internet has been there for a couple of decades now, so it seems a bit odd that lectures persist so much if they serve no purpose. I wonder if their role as a framework on which to build and education is misunderstood.
I like interaction, and discussion. It's also good to expect students to do some reading (or listening) before a class. I personally don't like the sessions where students are put into groups to discuss a topic by themselves and then bring their 'reveal' to the whole class for a few minutes at the end. I get irritated in staff development workshops where this happens as I feel that I just recycle my existing knowledge rather than gain new insights. Also, the format becomes so predictable after a while; like an easy way to fill the time. Once students recognise the technique, it can become tired and unimaginative to them, I’d argue. Mix things up, and don’t stick with the same formula each week. Others may disagree, which is fine. We all have our personal preferences and prejudices about learning. We should be free as academics to explore our own way to deliver our knowledge and find ways to get our students to think for themselves. No one-size-fits-all approach. The best thing that management can do is to listen, provide some funding for academics to innovate, and let them get on with it. Good management is about trusting your colleagues and treating them like professionals, and treating them as equals. Oh, and the main barrier to me teaching in innovative ways is funding: I can’t use the spaces, equipment and resources that I’d like to use to really give the students a fantastic learning experience. We’re still working with technology that most schools would be embarrassed to use.
I agree technology can be a bit outdated in a university but we should not let the technology lead- it's the content that is key. In my university when lecture theatres were being refurbished there was a strong push from maths students to retain blackboards because, as old as that technology is, it was seen as effective in some subjects- not all of course. The key is this, new technology is only better if it is actually better at doing the job- being new is not enough.
I'm watching adverts on this page for a Chinese university. All the lecturers are male. All the scientists wear white lab coats, even when they're doing research in the middle of a lake. There are no dark-skinned students. The students look a bit bored. All of the students in classes that are clearly scientific appear to be male. I'm sure the adverts are not representative of chinese higher education. But if that's what the marketing departments have been told to put forward as the vision of the future, it's not a model that I'm interested in.
More leftist nonsense. Your argument that traditional lectures cannot be transfered effectively online lacks evidence. The role of Lecturer as educator, rather than researcher or administrator, is fundamental to the academy. Leadership like this ignores the formative process of content creation, and the skill involved in the pedagogical efficiency and beauty of the classic form of the longform lecture done well. Because it's hard to do well, don't give up and claim the format and role is defunct in an effort to MacDonaldize University.
She seems a right know it all "The 45-minute lecture – it’s so outdated, its pedagogically not sound, it’s not evidence-based…" Then I wonder how such a system evolved ! It is not as useless as she suggests. She probably only got the job because of her "equality and diversity" credentials as she seems to have no idea about the dynamics of the traditional face to face lecture.
Oh yes and by the way I can hardly innovate on my teaching because the bureaucrats are telling me I cannot do the innovative type of assessment I want to do because it is not on my module specification. Complete utter claptrap. The idiot bureaucrats are telling me what to do it is like the monkeys being in charge of the zoo.
I would like to see the evidence the lectures are bad and blended learning is better. I keep asking my teaching and learning colleagues for it . I am open to changing my ideas if I can be convinced by methods and the data. So if anyone can post a good convincing reference, there are teams of people out there that would love to read it. The meta analyses I have read suggest that modern pedagogies and curricula are at best no worse than traditional methods and some studies show a small benefit, but it's inconsistent. It is actually hard to tell as most studies confound the new methods with additional time on task. In other words if students spend more time studying they do better. What exactly has the been done to outshine the principles of learning developed, what, 80 years ago? Trouble is, a lot of Universities don't practice those principles well in my experience. Once we get the brilliant basics in place, and when you do it makes a huge difference, then we can add the "new approaches" on top to see how much of the variation in outcomes can be explained. Sounds simple doesn't it?
Interested and pleased to see these comments. A personal view on teaching online last semester: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/time-new-orthodoxy-e-learning-paul-smith/?published=t Oh, it's "evidence-based".


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