Mary Evans on an “Electronic version of teaching”

Mary Evans, Professor in the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent said on the BBC Radio 4 programme Analysis, last night: “What I would suggest might be happening or happening in sort of twenty or thirty years time is that the sector goes in two different directions. One, certain old universities maintain traditional forms of teaching – tutorials, seminars, so on and so forth. Another part of the sector goes towards a much more electronic version of teaching in which students are given lecture notes on the web, and in that kind of model there is very little point and there is very little place for interaction between teachers and students.” (“Training Minds”, Analysis, BBC Radio 4, 30 November 2006, 2030)

It disappoints me to hear it suggested that in any form of higher education there is ever, “…very little point and … very little place for interaction between teachers and students.” These views do not appear to take into account current trends of thought or practice in learning technology.

First there is evidence that good student learning occurs when:

  • student-tutor contact is encouraged
  • student-student co-operation is encouraged
  • active learning is encouraged
  • feed back is prompt
  • time on task is emphasised
  • high expectations are communicated
  • diverse talents and ways of learning are respected.

I argue that these factors remain constant regardless of the mode of engagement: face-to-face, distant or blended, and regardless of electronic elements. In fact, as many teachers have discovered, electronic elements enhance communication, co-operation, collaboration, access to information and feedback response time.

The quality assurance agency for higher education has a 3 dimensional model (Sect. 2, para. 25) of flexible distributed learning – or blended learning – where one can consider educational modalities along three axes: collocation (are we sitting together), collaboration (are we working together) and computerisation (are our tasks electronically mediated). Recent research suggests that reasons for adopting blended approaches to learning are highly contextualised. The evidence does not support a binary divide where on the one hand “…certain old universities maintain traditional forms of teaching – tutorials, seminars, so on and so forth”, while others provide that “electronic version of teaching”.

Blending occurs for at least 10 reasons, to:

  1. offer flexibility in respect of delivery (face-to-face and distance education)
  2. take advantage of new (web based) technologies (Web2.0: blogs, wikis, eportfolios, web services, etc)
  3. provide and support authentic/work-based learning
  4. provide different pedagogical approaches (didactic, group work, problem-based learning, etc.)
  5. introduce flexibility in respect to chronology and sequence (multiple pathways, synchronous and asynchronous interventions)
  6. provide for and support multi-disciplinary groupings of learners and course teams
  7. provide for different foci and different aims (diversity in a cohort)
  8. allow multiple loci of control (instructor-directed vs. learner-directed)
  9. recognise different epistemological approaches (positivist, associative, cognitive constructivist, social constructivist, situative, etc)
  10. accommodate a complex polity (expose overt/covert curricula; direct/indirect objects of learning).

While there is evidence that students value supplementary web-based materials, to suggest that this should imply a learning or teaching prefererence (or even tolerance) for a transmissive, knowledge-deficit, banking model of education is very wide of the mark. The learner experience is highly varied. There are many people working to support problem-posing learning communities online within, outside and between institutions (e.g., e.g., e.g.).

Good teaching is based on reciprocity, authenticity and credibility. It sets ground rules, provides alternatives, exemplifies models, and gives access to the experience of teachers and other practitioners. There are new ways of doing things, but I suggest that certain constants emerge:

  • A good teacher can support a limited number of students well. While lectures and their various online equivalents may be very effective for some teachers, learners and purposes, close critical work requires individual attention: 1:5, 1:10, 1:20, maybe 1:30. But 1:50? 1:100? But that attention does not need to be given face to face.
  • The value of the learning experience lies in interactions, not in the provision of content (otherwise MIT and the Open University would not be releasing their content on the Web for free)
  • A rich learning experience is possible in many ways. It does not inhere exclusively in traditional educational forms.

I would welcome the opportunity to discuss these ideas further.

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