Sages on stage loath to change

October 24, 1997

MANY lecturers are refusing to budge in the face of pressure to step down from the podium and embrace innovative teaching methods that hand authority back to the student.

"The defensive tendency of lecturers who like to lecture stems from the belief that if knowledge is transmitted it is learned," says Andrew Pollard, director of educational research at Bristol University.

Enthusiasm for so-called learning development is regarded with derision by large sections of the teaching staff in old and new universities, presenting their employers with a problem. Because, whether they like it or not, the focus of university teaching is shifting away from the corpus of knowledge in favour of the process of learning. And that means the lecture can no longer be the central plank of university study.

The reasoning is that subject expertise alone is not an acceptable outcome of learning programmes. Students must be able to demonstrate that they can apply their knowledge in some useful way. Nevertheless, academics are finding it difficult to let go of the old lecture-based approach.

"Lecturers are terrified about handing to students the responsibility for learning because to a large extent teaching methods are a social defence. They are constructed to avoid students asking questions," says Graham Gibbs of the Open University's centre for higher education practice.

Not only are students themselves changing, the financial context of universities is shifting and new technology offers real opportunities for changing teaching methods.

At Lincoln and Humberside University a new learning environment was devised recently which required staff to switch from the role of "sage on the stage" into a support role for students gaining knowledge for themselves.

A number of obstacles presented themselves. Learning development staff found academics were suspicious that the changes were technologically driven, a cost-cutting measure that would destroy posts and deskill lecturers by creating a second-class form of distance learning.

The new learning environment seemed to be directly contrary to the need to establish research credibility in a new institution.

Roger King, vice chancellor of Lincoln and Humberside and chair of a national teaching and learning working group, agreed that lecturers were understandably hesitant and had reacted adversely to the changes.

He said the problem was that universities had yet to define the new role of academic staff as managers and facilitators of learning. "We need to put much more effort into this. The new learning environment does not undermine the efforts of lecturers."

Paul Cottrell, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said change was now permeating the profession. Lecturers were required to give students more support rather than less. "Innovative teaching requires a considerable amount of skill if it is to be done properly otherwise empowerment simply means confusion and demoralisation for students and staff," he said.

Suzanne Robertson works in learning development at Sunderland University, which put a new teaching and learning strategy into place seven years ago. "It really does take time to achieve cultural change in a university," she said. "The big hurdle is to retain the confidence of lecturers and convince them that they do retain their authority. But at the same time you must press home the message that students no longer come to university to be lectured at."

Some lecturers will never change, says Ms Robertson. But many others at Sunderland have now come round to the idea that they are not being disempowered by encouraging students to be active learners and engage in debate. A lot of students also need convincing because it is harder work for them initially, she adds.

The main sticking point for lecturers is scepticism that the same level of detailed subject knowledge can be covered. In addition, producing new electronic learning resources is often regarded as time-consuming and deskilling.

"In fact it is the reverse", says Ms Robertson. "Academics still design the curriculum, and plan the teaching, learning and assessment criteria. But the students gain, in addition to core knowledge, the ability to use their own research and experience."

Managers must understand how threatening such fundamental change may appear. Professor Gibbs recommends allowing lecturers to experiment with the idea of losing control of teaching in a safe environment such as a workshop supported by peer mentoring. "You can't expect them to give up their protection - their subject expertise - lightly. And they don't," he said.

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