Friday, March 9, 2018

Boost Unis by Teaching Academics to Teach

Professor Jenny Stewart
In "Whatever happened to the 'world's best job'?" (Canberra Times, 6 March 2017), Professor Jenny Stewart suggests "... governments should stop trying to substitute regulation for support, and acknowledge that the current system has been squeezed dry ...". However, I suggest changes in higher education are just starting and are not coming from the government, but the wider world. Academics need to skill-up to survive in this new world and in particular need to become qualified educators.

Academics have considerable freedom to develop their style of teaching. However, with this freedom comes the responsibility to become competent educators. Academics unwilling to learn to teach have only themselves to blame if other staff have to be brought in to oversee their work.

Australia does not have a mass system of higher education, with standardized curricula and courses for hundreds of thousands of students. Instead Australian universities provide for small cohorts of students. However, Australian academics can adopt some of the techniques from mass education, to improve quality and free up resources address individual student needs.

Universities don't need to operate like schools. However, academics do need to act more like school teachers in one respect: become trained, qualified teachers. Learning to teach requires hundreds of hours of study, practice and testing. Like any professional, teachers need to top up their skills every year with professional development, for their entire career.

Australia's universities were not established for pure research. From the founding of Australia's first university, the aim was to provide education, alongside research. A few students will go on to advanced studies and become academics themselves. However, the majority of students are destined for careers outside academia, and so this is where university education must focus. Universities must therefore cater for students with a wide range of abilities.

Australian universities are self-credentialing, but are not without external scrutiny. The professions accredit university degrees and so provide a level of national and international review. This external review has provided a competitive advantage for Australian universities and is helping fuel the current boom in international enrollments.

Many academics do work very hard at their teaching, but as General Patton might have said:
"The job of a teacher is not to work very hard, it is to make their students work very hard".
Many academics spend long hours writing detailed notes on essays. Unfortunately, education research shows that writing detailed notes on essays is at best ineffective, and may demoralize students. Teachers are trained in alternative techniques to provide feedback in smaller chunks, which students can accept and act on and which will motivate the student.

Academics spend long hours in class, frustrated by the lack of attendance and lack of interest shown by students. Here again, research shows there are techniques which can increase student engagement, without increasing staff workload. Teachers are trained in how to get and keep the student's attention and have them learning.
Unfortunately, some academics do not accept they are "teachers", and so continue to use techniques which research shows are not effective for student learning.

It is not just coursework where academics "teach". Supervision of research students for doctoral degrees is also a form of teaching. This is another area where academics waste their time, and hinder the development of their students, with inadequate practice.

None of this is to say that academics have to spend years in class learning to teach. Instead they can undertake basic teacher training as part of their graduate studies. The equivalent of a certificate in teaching could be provided as part of graduate degrees. This would provide the early career academic with the equivalent teacher training to a Vocational Education and Training (VET) teacher. Early career academics could then undertake a graduate program in education part-time, primarily on-line.

It should be kept in mind that most university teaching is not undertaken by full-time, tenured academics. Most teaching is by graduate students, part-time staff, adjuncts from industry and others on short term contracts. This is not a deficiency of the system, but a strength. Students have more empathy when teaching other students and visitors from industry bring a depth of real-world experience. However, these staff also need training in teaching, which is delivered in a way that it is seen as a benefit to the part time teachers, not a burden. In particular, the training provided needs to lead to a formal qualification.

Unlike commercial enterprises, universities are still run collegiately by the staff. University Vice Chancellors have limited power to make academic staff take their teaching role seriously. It is up to academics themselves to decide to skill-up and become professional educators. This would be preferable to government intervention requiring set educational qualifications for academics.

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