UCLU’s ECO on how the way we learn needs to change
Right then. First entry for Pi and we’ll begin with a small trip in history.
Enduring lengthy lectures has been the practice of students for centuries. The traditional lecturing method traces to the seventeenth century, and was one of the two primary methods of disseminating knowledge in a university setting. The actual method of ‘disseminating’ was as dull as it sounds: students would attempt to record the lecturer’s every word, ensuring all thought and even phraseology was captured. They would later reconvene to compare notes and confirm they had an accurate copy of the lecturer’s mind. This was necessary in a pre-printing press era, and made lecturers the absolute gatekeepers of knowledge.
Fast-forward a few centuries, we still see remnants of a tradition that began when dinosaurs were still around. Many lecturers still insist on uploading an incomplete set of notes, stating possible negative impact on attendance as a reason. Their concern is not entirely misplaced; research by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Higher Education Academy in 2014 revealed that undergraduates miss almost 10% of teaching time every week, with boring lectures and online availability of notes cited as the main reasons.
At the same time, trying to persevere with an age-old approach of teaching in a technologically advancing world is like urinating against the wind. With an increasing prevalence of MOOCs and other good stuff, lecture time needs to change; the initial purpose of lecturing can be better achieved through other means.
There are countless examples of lecture slots being used in inventive ways. The Australian National University facilitates peer-learning in large classes by allowing students to produce, answer and comment on assessment-style multiple choice questions interactively during lectures. A few questions are also selected for use in final exams. The lecture theatre isn’t the only place getting a makeover. The Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, UK, piloted a year-long program consisting of teams tasked with making changes to their curricula. All but one of the teams had student members, providing students a channel through which they can change their course content.
Fortunately, UCL recognises that the desired changes are best defined by students. Without undressing UCL’s long-term strategies (UCL2034, Connected Curriculum etc.), there are significant opportunities for students not only to act as the consulted, but to be co-creators in the future of education (those 2 C-words are thrown around quite a bit).
My underlying motive for this entry will become apparent with subsequent pieces over the coming months (*ahem* Education Conference, 21st Feb *ahem*). Student engagement is something all higher education institutions – as well as student unions – struggle with. There is a tendency by us students to forego opportunities in implementing changes, but subsequently complain about the very areas we could have improved.
It’s not that we’re an uninterested bunch; sometimes it comes down to not knowing. Other times it’s probably laziness. One very relatable example would be the end of term module surveys. Departments seem to place a heavy emphasis on these when identifying areas for development. Awkwardly enough, the sheet tends to be dominated with hurried ‘4/5’ ticks. There might also be a general sense of “what’s the point.” Entirely understandable: education as an entity is an enormous creature, and as such will evolve at a very sluggish rate. However, future generations of students are entitled to some degree of altruism on our part.
UCL’s Vice-Provost for Education and Student Affairs once mentioned in a passing comment that UCL staff require a change in the way they think; teachers are merely students, but at a different point along the learning journey. It is this type of mentality that will embrace student input and facilitate change.
I’m going to make a habit of this, and that’s leaving you with an actionable step for you to take right now. Get in touch with your course StAR – ask them how their JSSC meetings went and whether they are aware of the StARs Action Groups (the latter being the more important). Encourage them to join one of the 5 Action Groups (they can find more details in the StARs newsletter). Peers seem to be more convincing than the occasional email.
Lukmaan Kolia is UCL Union’s Education and Campaigns Officer. He’ll be writing a regular blog for Pi on his work to improve our academic lives at UCL. Follow him on Twitter at @UCLU_ECO