Change is a comin’ for Universities.


A couple of days ago I posted on University structure. And I have been going on about this for a while. Well, it is good to see some things happening. In the US, the University of Virginia has been embroiled in a fight about its direction. Last night’s view – together with a nice piece on the need for reform from the NYT – is here.  But by this morning, the forces of ‘slow and steady’ had won.

But all is not lost. Our own Deakin University has decided to move on from the 19th century and use the internet and social media to change the University learning experience. See here. If done properly, the type of inverted classroom approach that Deakin has announced can work well and improve learning outcomes. It probably has not escaped their VC’s notice that it can also reduce costs. But it has to be done properly. In my opinion that means

  • well thought out readings/videos/etc available on-line for the students in addition to any textbook;
  • the ability for students to ‘engage’ in discussing an issue relating to the material before any class – for example through a blog-type experience;
  • weekly on-line testing before any class that gives feedback to the course leader about where the students are having problems;
  • classroom feedback/discussion that is based on the pre-class testing. The class may involve ‘personal’ feedback if a tutorial size or ‘web-based’ feedback (there are a variety of ‘voting’ services, or even using ‘clickers’ will do) with real time variation to the class discussion to incorporate any issues that become apparent from the feedback; and
  • preferably some problem-based learning after the class to make sure the concepts ‘sink in’.

Now, if you think this is all a lot of work, it is. It means revamping courses and making the role of the lecturer/leader much more important. The course leader is the intellectual gatekeeper and you need to really know your stuff to alter the direction of discussion mid-presentation. There will not be set ‘slides’ for the students, because classes will be responding in real time to student understanding.

It is also very easy to do this badly if the focus is on saving money rather than improving learning. And while the approach will increase students’ flexibility, it doesn’t reduce students’ workload. Indeed, done well, the workload will probably increase, but the students will learn more and in greater depth.

So congratulations to Deakin’s VC, Professor den Hollander. This is a smart, brave move. But make sure, in the short term, that the University invests in the platforms, training and re-engineering that are needed. If it is just a strategy to save money, it will fail.

2 Responses to "Change is a comin’ for Universities."
  1. Yes, change is a comin’ for universities, here and elsewhere. It actually has been a comin’ for a long time in the USA (e.g., Ortmann, Journal of Higher Education 1997, pp. 483 – 501 or Ortmann, Education Economics 2001, pp. 293 – 311; sorry for the plug. Just saying … )

    It seems that Teresa Sullivan was quite aware of it; as this strategy document demonstrates: Note that she says there, “At the time of my appointment, I was explicitly instructed not to do a strategic plan for the academic program.” Dah. For all I can see it was not Sullivan who was slowing down the change process. Steadying maybe but hardly slowing it down.

    So, to say the forces of ‘slow and steady’ have won, strikes me as simply wrong. From what I have read, forces have won that have asked important questions (laid out well
    and here about university governance in times of change.

    The Olds piece is particularly rich, informative, and balanced. Here are some of the questions that s/he identifies as relevant:
    – How come that a state that pays less than 10 percent of the bills of the university gets to appoint hundred percent of the Board of Visitors (the University’s governing board)?
    – How come that most of the voting members of the U of Va governing board have given campaign contributions to governors who appointed them?
    – How come that — save a non-voting student member — no faculty member is on the board?
    – What are the qualifications of those on the board anyways? Their daily dose of the ruminations of Brooks and Selingo?
    – What was Dragas thinking when she allowed her board faction to dodge public notice law?
    – What was Dragas thinking when she kept members of the board in the dark about her effort to oust Sullivan?
    – What was she thinking when she went ahead to dismiss Sullivan although only three members of the executive committee were able to attend the decisive meeting?

    Important questions all.

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