Sage on the stage - your time is up

Ignore innovative and team-based learning at your peril, HEA conference hears. Jack Grove reports

July 12, 2012

Innovative teachers must be championed by senior managers if vibrant new ways of learning are to gain a hold at universities.

That is the view of Mark Freeman, director of accreditation at University of Sydney Business School, who has researched why higher education institutions do not do more to adopt innovative practices, even when there is strong evidence to demonstrate their benefits.

Speaking at the Higher Education Academy's annual conference at the University of Manchester, held on 3 and 4 July, Mr Freeman discussed a study of academics who added "team-based learning" to courses.

The teaching model, which combines individual study with group discussions and classroom debate, has proved highly successful at several institutions, and particularly in medical faculties in the US, he said.

But despite overwhelmingly positive feedback from students - 81 per cent said it motivated progressive learning - academics doubted whether team-based learning would be used more widely at their institutions, he said.

That was partly because scholars found it difficult to communicate the results of the new mode of teaching to others. One in five said its benefits were not visible at all to their colleagues, while 56 per cent said the positive results were only partially visible to others.

Too often innovators were also seen as "outliers" who operated outside the mainstream of the academy, Mr Freeman said. Senior managers needed to "walk the walk" and celebrate innovators within their departments if new teaching methods were to take off, he added.

"Simply providing a website (to showcase innovation) is not going to work. Senior managers need to be the leaders."

In the conference's opening speech, Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University, also urged institutions and academics to "deconstruct and reconstruct" their approach to teaching.

Scholars should move away from the traditional "sage on the stage" approach to lectures and instead become "the coach on the side", using interactive technology to engage with students, he said.

Platforms such as YouTube could also be used to aid teaching, he added. "The resistance to embracing these innovative spaces can [come] from your academic community," he said. "But it does not need to be super-expensive or really tricky to do some really remarkable things."

The Open University's resources have attracted more than 54 million downloads via iTunes - an "incredibly powerful" way to promote the university, he said.

"You may not like this world, but it is coming at you at a million miles an hour," he added. "It is at our peril, as a sector, if we fail to figure it out because I'd hate those Americans to beat us to the punch."

jack.grove@tsleducation.com.

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