Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Educating more than an elite

It has become quite clear that it universities’ job is no longer only to educate a small intellectual elite. Obviously, just as we accept in sport and music, we still need an intellectual elite. But while the educational mission of the university has changed, the teaching methods to match are taking a little longer to catch up.

Educating more rather than less is always a good thing: as well as improving the lives of participants in a thousand different ways, it helps to make society a more tolerant, civil, safe and prosperous place.

But a mission to educate an elite is rather different (though I have to say research on elite education is understandable not very prominent, so I am guessing from observations).

Firstly, you don’t even necessarily need to educate elite intellectuals, they are likely to do it themselves with enough competition and rewards. To locate your elite, you could just keep examining people and scraping them off the top until you get the few you are after. Teach them really, really badly and, with enough books in the library and tough enough exams, you’ll still end up with remarkably well educated people. In fact, the harder you make it to learn, the easier it will be to identify the elite who have learned it despite you.

Which is not to say the elite universities do that. Truthfully, they attract high performing students and higher performing staff so normally the teaching is pretty good, the exposure to research even better by students who were going to do great even if they weren’t. It is clear, I think, that the education system was at least partly set up with this skim-off-the-top approach working pretty successfully in identifying the required elite.

But the majority of universities are not elite and that is a good thing. And this is where the real education has to happen. This is because the students who enter have not been scraped off the top via the HSC exams, they are real, normal people needing a genuine education. Lots of them are going to go on to become the maths and history teachers of our school kids, nurses of our sick and auditors of our finances: so it is important.

The problem is, the people teaching them have normally been trained in an elite system. That is only a problem because, research pretty consistently suggests that ideas about what makes proper education are formed early and by one’s own learning experiences. So it seems to me likely that we have a lot of academics teaching non-elite students as if they were the elite. In the actual elite universities, this is fine. In the majority it could be a disaster, especially since expansion of the system is inevitable and imminent.

In talking to academics about designing learning activities to support normal people learning without reducing university standards a comment I have heard over and over is “we didn’t get all this scaffolding to support us when we were students, why shouldn’t my students have to struggle along like I did?” I think this is because they are the elite and their students are not (necessarily).

But there is a very real risk that, instead of developing teaching approaches that educate, rather than scrape people off the top, university standards will actually drop, which is why the system is currently obsessed with quality. But I would like to point out, once again:

You do not get quality by measuring it.

The reason standards could drop is that the starting level of students is dropping, as it must if the system will expand (which it will). There probably needs to be a systematic way of improving this starting level (maybe a bridging year) but for now I am interested in developing teaching methods. If courses are aligned to student needs rather than disciplinary standards, as some current pedagogies now suggest, then standards could drop. If assessment levels are gauged by average pass rates: that is, the difficult of assessment is adjusted by on average 90% of students passing, then as student starting levels drop, so will degree standards. You could fix this with standardized exams, but then we return to the problem this posting started off with.

Postgraduate qualifications in higher education/university teaching (which should not be the same thing but are, often) are thus becoming an indicator of (potential) quality in universities and, rightly, it is becoming an expectation that academic staff will obtain some teaching qualification like this. This is important if staff are to develop the new types of teaching skills required to genuinely educate new types of students.

One campus review article (http://www.campusreview.com.au/pages/section/article.php?s=Comment&idArticle=13897) recently suggests that, academic staff workloads are such that professional development disguised as postgraduate-level courses do not all have great standards themselves. It is entirely plausible that these standards could drop as academic workloads continue to increase and government incentives lead to strategic pressure to graduate larger quantities of academics from them.

This article suggests that academic development units, being attached to university strategy rather than academically independent in faculties, may themselves have incentives to keep these courses overly simple. There may not be any systematic imperative to assure disciplinary standards. And indeed, if they are all like this, then benchmarking them to each other will only affirm low standards. I am NOT saying that this is the case (I have not personally looked close enough to know), but as I said before “benchmarking is useless if everything is crap”.

If, rather, higher education was located in education faculties as research centres, with the pure pursuit of knowledge about higher education and university teaching as the primary goal and thus offering genuinely postgraduate level courses, we could be much more certain about the quality of these courses. Because academic freedom – the freedom to choose what to research and teach – is key to quality. And it requires separation from strategic and policy influence.

I am not an expert in all this, however, and I could well be wrong.

1 comment:

M-H said...

I am one of the people who don't understand how academic support units have become separated from faculties and from education research in the greater university. They often seem focused on student satisfaction surveys (SREQ, PREQ etc) as a way of measuring quality. Any less quantative and outcomes-focused kinds of research into university learning and teaching is done outside these units. I've been reading a bit of Paul Trowler; it's not directly my field, but I have found what I've read of his work to be really interesting, especially deconstructing the idea of how academics are 'trained' to teach.