Are we seeing the devolution of university education?

cracked institutionYesterday the Australian Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, announced cuts to higher education funding and increases in student fees. In addition, the income threshold for repayment of student debt will be reduced. Funding for teaching will be reduced in 2019 by $380 million relative to the current funding formula.

Universities are huge institutions requiring significant funding to maintain their operations. Yet they face hefty competition from global and increasingly accessible, technologies. Instead of a future of under-funded universities, I see their devolution altogether – at least in terms of education, if not of research.

The change will not be quick. A higher degree (bachelors or above) is now the entry point for the regulated professions. These professions, including law, use course accreditation as a means of guaranteeing standards of graduate entry. For unregulated professions (such as marketing, or banking) the market determines the entry requirement, and that is generally a bachelors degree.

But things are changing, and universities’ role can no longer be taken for granted.

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‘Add tech and stir’ is no recipe for innovation

AddTech.pngMy previous post gave an overview of the Law Society of New South Wales’ flip Report, on the future of law and innovation in the profession. My overall impression is that the Report might provide a useful and very gentle overview of the road ahead, but fails to engage in any real sense with the way in which technology will – and already is – changing law and legal practice.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the chapter devoted to legal education. This poses a real limit on the possibilities for innovation – especially to the extent that regulatory bodies are likely to accept the Report’s statement that existing knowledge and skills must remain.

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In search of the pedagogy of lecture capture

Technophobia? Or pedagogy?


I hold views about compulsory across the board lecture capture in universities. I’ve worked out that my resistance comes from the same place as my longstanding questioning of the entrenched assumptions about PowerPoint as assumed practice. (PowerPoint is a post of its own however.)

But before you, the reader, prepares to take aim at me as a technophobe, or to launch celebrations at having found a kindred spirit who yearns for times of yore, let me explain.

My position is that technology is a tool, it is not the purpose of education. Further, all technology including even that of the lecture, should be selected purposefully according to principles of effective learning and teaching.

It is widely known that students use lecture capture for a few purposes. It allows for revision of the work covered in the lecture, and for revisiting complex ideas or ideas that the student missed in class. It also helps students who are unable to make class – they do not miss out on ‘the lecture’ because they can conveniently stream it in the comfort of their own home. Further, for students with English as a second language, neuroatypical students, and other students with diverse learning needs, the capture allows the student to engage with ‘the lecture’ on their own terms.

These are all very important goals, but none of these answer my question which is, why is lecture capture the best mode of achieving these goals? Are there not other technologies that can serve these purposes – perhaps even better?

There is a lot of concern voiced by academics about lecture capture driving students away from real life lectures, with negative consequences for student learning. That is not principally my own concern. Indeed I note that there are studies that discount the causative effect. My own view is that students should be able to select when and where they engage with their subjects. 

This still, however, does not answer the question ‘why lecture capture’ and indeed it prompts the question ‘why lecture’ – both of which learning and teaching settings are nothing more than a tool. The real question, surely, is ‘what is the best tool for the job’.

Despite the widely-held contemporary view that lectures are a passive learning experience – is not a learning experience at all – they can be an engaging and even a transformative learning experience. Whether offered didactically or interactively, this format is live performance. It involves a relationship between lecturer and student. The lecturer must read the audience cues…pause, reiterate, deviate, advance, moderate. These decisions are made in relation to tempo, voice, gestures, body movement, eye contact, content, choice of words, visual cues. There may well be ‘content delivery’ but an effective lecture is no passive transaction.

This renders the face-to-face lecture a qualitatively different experience from a recording of that lecture. If we are lecturing for video, the performance to be effective might adopt quite a different tone or format. Think TED Talks. One point of difference of TED Talks is their brevity – not the two-hour traditional university lecture assiduously captured by university AV/IT systems. (They are also highly practised and professionally shot and edited.)

For lectures that take an interactive approach, the experience of viewing a recording must be infuriating. Gaps in ‘delivery’, unclear discussion in the background, and a static camera angle. The viewer is excluded from the room, an outsider in the learning experience. 

Meanwhile, those in the room are under surveillance, their words and image potentially picked up by the capture system and exposing the student to the eyes of unknown others. I do not consider this a ‘safe’ learning environment, one in which I can in good conscience ask students to take risks. Further, I do not think we are modelling critical evaluation of privacy where we do not ask students to consider the privacy implications of the weekly broadcast. (Although I concede that privacy is pretty much dead in light of all the student data captured in analytics. Students are by now enculturated to be the product as well as the consumer of the processes of education.)

All of this is aimed at what I suspect is the end game of content delivery. Yes, examining the reasons for student use of lecture capture, the predominant purpose is going over that sweet, sweet content til they get it right. If that is the case, can we not package this content in a way that suits our educational design? 

My preference would be that university policies encourage lecturers to consider the best way to support student learning through diverse channels. For me, it is an interactive, relational, dynamic, lecture experience unhampered by the constraints of static camera/microphone and concerns about privacy. I like to support student flexibility and choice through pre-prepared podcasts which have a few key features.

  • These address the same content as is provided in the lecture. 
  • They emphasise the key points. 
  • They are perhaps 20 minutes long – giving a manageable and navigable ‘chunk’ and the chance for the student to gauge learning on the way.
  • They are free of the interactive distractions in class.
  • The format is more transportable, more flexible than lecture streaming.
  • I am not beholden to the vagaries of the software  (yes, I have been failed in the past and you’ll never guess what happened next).
  • Students can listen to podcasts before the lecture also, enhancing the lecture experience.

Student surveys reveal that my students value the podcasts as a means to enhance their learning, and I am satisfied that this format addresses the unstated intent of mandatory lecture capture policies.

I would prefer, however, to see a more clearly articulated and pedagogy-based approach to universities’ policies.