Ensemble efforts can, and should, replace the lone lecturer

In virtually all our endeavours in the academy, collaboration is valued – so why is the classroom an exception, ask Kwong Nui Sim and Michael Cowling

February 15, 2021
Older university lecturer
Source: iStock

Why is it that we so often teach alone? Close your eyes and imagine a professor in a classroom. Most likely, you’re picturing an older man (or, possibly, woman) in front of a chalkboard or behind a lectern, gesticulating on his/her own at the front of the room to a lecture theatre full of entranced students. His/her role is that of course coordinator, and even if they have a team of teaching assistants/tutors, they alone are often responsible for the content and delivery of the course.

And yet, in all our other endeavours in the academy, collaboration is valued. In research and service, government agencies hand out awards for fruitful partnerships, industry establishes working parties, and a record of national and international collaborations is essential for career progression. Why, then, is the classroom an exception? And can technology help us do something about it?

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Lessons from 2020 should look forwards, not backwards
The coronavirus pandemic shook up many industries, not least higher education, where social distancing and the closure of physical spaces drove the uptake of new technology-enhanced learning (TEL) initiatives based on virtual teaching, learning and collaboration. Our habitat of lecture theatres and chalk dusters was suddenly replaced by Zoom calls and chat windows, with all the benefits and limitations that brings. Recent evidence suggests that this will become the “new” or even “continuous” normal in the third decade of the 21st century, with universities preferring this model.

Given how much Covid has already shaken up higher education, why not embrace this push for change? Moving forward, we should let TEL drive us to reposition our roles as teachers in higher education, resetting and rethinking whether teaching is a solo duty – and we’re talking not just contributing to resource pools but actually working together on individual courses.

Specifically, TEL could encourage a stronger sense of collaborative spirit in the teaching space (for example, sharing question pools), where the workload (such as shifting teaching and learning online) could be shared, resulting in enhanced pedagogical and scaffolding experiences for students. Were there a stronger sense of collaborative spirit among teachers (sharing video lectures, perhaps), difficulties caused by the shift online could fall less on one person’s shoulders.

And there has never been a better time to discuss this than right now, as universities worldwide settle into a long haul that includes the uncertainty of a global pandemic and will likely include planning for other potential disruptions.

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But my classroom belongs to me!
So, what about the inevitable pushback from some professors, who feel like they no longer “own” their classroom? Well, the ironic part is that “teaching collaboration” does exist, but few academics activate this approach like they do in their research space. While academics are very comfortable in research collaborations, they seem less intuitive in collaborations within the teaching arena.

We argue that academics should embrace and take advantage of “a team of many hands with one mind” that allows wider resources and exposures for student learning. After all, if academics agree that research collaborations generate more and better outputs, wouldn’t it be the same for teaching collaborations? Teachers have tended to focus, so far, on largely synchronous delivery methods and overlook the fact that talent wins the game, but collaboration wins the championship.

Can Covid-19 vaccinate against lecture loneliness as well?
Most importantly, the roles of teachers are evolving in the post-Covid world. Online and/or distance education is the only solution offered thus far for any disrupted physical space scenario. Digital citizenship is killing the “sage on the stage”. But even once we return to our traditional settings on campus, the question will remain: why do we teach alone?

The lack of a truly satisfactory answer tells us everything. It’s time we stopped focusing on that lonely lectern, especially while the whole world is embarking on a challenging, unconventional journey.

Kwong Nui Sim is a senior lecturer and learning and teaching consultant at AUT Learning Transformation LAB, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand. Michael Cowling is an associate professor in information and communication technology (ICT) at CQUniversity, Australia.

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