Vital stash of panache

September 15, 2000

Why isn't web study suitable for all? Because, Sally Brown argues, teachers need to know which students are staring out of the window. Olga Wojtas talks to an inspiring don

Sally Brown, deputy principal of Stirling University, sits in her small office on Britain's most beautiful campus and dispenses coffee, humour and insight. She has an extraordinary wealth of experience, which makes her supremely well equipped to talk about both teaching and research.

A former physics teacher and professor of education at Stirling since 1990, her teaching experience ranges from school to university. She is a respected researcher in education, frequently investigating government initiatives north of the border and she chairs the research assessment exercise's education panel. She possesses the best qualities of both: the approachable, inspiring teacher and the thorough, passionate researcher.

Brown is unhappy at the way higher education creates a split between teaching and research, with research assessment separated from teaching quality assurance. She is emphatic that academics who teach need to have a solid grip on research. They need not be cutting-edge researchers, but keeping up with general developments is crucial in deciding what to teach, she insists. But she stresses that teaching and research are two different things.

"As a researcher, you have to spend a lot of time wringing your hands because you have to question anything that you assume, and that is pretty damn uncomfortable," she says. "As a teacher, you have to display confidence, take decisions on the spur of the moment and take them with panache. In the traditional lecture setting, you may become aware that the students are bored out of their minds. It isn't any good thinking 'There are seven great theories of motivation', you have to do something. In web-based learning, if something doesn't seem to be working, you have to be decisive and say 'We're going to grin and bear this', or 'Forget it'."

Brown does not advocate one teaching method over another. She warns that it is crucial to understand that different methods achieve different things. In some fast-moving areas, book-based learning may be almost immediately out of date, bringing web-based learning into its own. "One of the most important things is that students are enabled to make judgements about what's worth reading on the net."

She believes that only a minimum of teaching will ever be fully conducted through distance learning. Human support is essential for many students, particularly non-traditional entrants, but Professor Brown hails distance learning as well-suited to knowledgeable postgraduates who simply need to be pointed in the right direction.

"Video-conferencing approaches face-to-face, but doesn't quite make it. It's better if it's done one-to-one or with a small group. But if you get 20 students at one end and the lecturer at the other, it's difficult to get a sense of the group. If I have a group of 20 in the same room, I can see who's staring out of the window." Because of the limitations, any discussion via video-conferencing needs to be carefully organised. This dictates which topics are suitable.

"If I was talking with a group about the formal structure of the curriculum in secondary schools, and they have had access to statements or my notes in advance, we could talk about that clearly," she says. "But if we were to have a discussion about the values underpinning secondary education, that would be more difficult, because it's important to draw out different perspectives among the group." Designing and running web-based courses is time-consuming for staff, and there needs to be a recognition of the costs and rewards to individuals of any innovation, she warns.

"I might reveal that there's a wonderful new shorthand method, with proof that it had worked for other people. You might think 'The evidence is quite good, but it would be an enormous cost to me to abandon my way of doing things, which has worked perfectly satisfactorily for years'," she says. "On the other hand, it might address a particular problem with the way you've always done shorthand."

Teachers would generally agree that their starting point must be the students' actual level of knowledge, not what they would like the students' level of knowledge to be, Brown says.

But this approach is often ignored when it comes to trying to change academics' teaching practice. Higher education often fails to recognise that having an innovative idea is not enough: it has to be sold. "You can't just think about the changes, you have to think about how you're going to implement them. You have to have a great idea. You have to have some evidence that it achieves the things it sets out to do. But it has to have an impact on the way people are currently thinking," she says.

Staff in different institutions have different motivations. Ancient universities with highly qualified entrants have little motivation to change because their students "can adapt with the greatest of ease to whatever is thrown at them". Some of these staff may be fascinated by new approaches in web-based learning, but less interested in modular courses "because their concept of learning is essentially a progressive one, with students progressing from being relatively naive to extremely well qualified".

It is critical to appreciate that there are different patterns of motivation for staff to either implement change or to resist it. If teaching innovations are to take off, she says, they will have a much better chance if more attention is paid to integrating them with existing thinking and practice. Many teachers see themselves as having built up "craft knowledge", and are understandably unhappy with any suggestion that they abandon this. And because they are the ones who will ultimately decide what teaching methods are used, it is up to innovators to be more sensitive and analytic than they have sometimes seemed in the past.

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