Think (about your pedagogy)

“What is your pedagogical viewpoint?” might sound like the World’s worst chat-up line, but it is a question worth considering. Most people go into teaching with some sort of ideal about what they want to achieve. Nobody enters teaching for the financial rewards, which is not to say the pay is awful. Compared to many workers university teachers are both well paid and well looked after. But not to the extent that somebody who was money-mad would be interested.
Neither is teaching likely, in most cases, to result in public adulation. Sure, students can be grateful and a handful of academics develop lucrative TV careers. But, on the whole teachers, even good teachers, remain under-valued. We are not rock stars, that’s for sure.
So, what drives us to teach? What values underpin our teaching? What do we think about when we think about teaching? Here, I shall make a confession. When I was first employed in a higher education institution, I had no teaching qualification, at the time I didn’t even have a Ph.D., generally considered the minimum entry requirement for a career in H.E.
It never occurred to me that I needed a teaching qualification. I had an idea that being a “lecturer” was simply an extension of “careers” I had had in the past. I was a confident public speaker, both from years spent working as a club DJ and from my involvement in politics. I thought this and a commitment to my students was enough to get me through. My poor students! How they suffered as I learned my art.
If you had asked me back in those heady days about my pedagogy I would not have had a clue what you were talking about. If I had worked out that it was something to with my philosophy of teaching, I might have muttered something about being ‘student centred’. Looking back, I’m rather relieved nobody asked me, its never pleasant making yourself look an arse is it?
One reason I wasn’t asked, of course, was that the question never occurred to any of my colleagues, nor to my interview panel. But, shouldn’t that question be asked of anybody who wants to make a living teaching? Would we be happy with a pilot who had no experience of flying being employed to fly a 747? Or, a surgeon, who had some vague idea that he might like to use a scalpel, being let loose on real patients? Yet, to some extent that is exactly what we do with teachers in higher education.
As teachers we can improve through practice, through professional development and by watching others. But, students only get one chance at their education. They are not there to meet the new improved you the next time. Don’t we owe it to them to try to get it right from the start? Of course, there is something to be said for learning from experience, but that is only true if we are reflexive in the first place.
Come on, anybody who works or studies in a university can name staff who despite being high profile researchers are a disaster in front of students. They get away with it because it remains the case that research is more highly valued by academics than teaching. If you are a lecturer, what would you rather do: teach or do research? If you are a student who would you rather be taught by: the professor with the string of book titles to their name or the recently appointed, enthusiastic young lecturer with commitment and energy?
If you are a lecturer the answer is not pedagogic, but strategic. Do you want a career or not? For students, I suggest you think carefully about what you wish for. So, when asked about my pedagogical outlook I find it difficult to answer mainly because it is not a question I have spent anything like enough time thinking about.


What an experience?

So, MOOCs. You’d have to be digitally illiterate not to have heard about these. Just when I thought there was no more to be said The Open University, my employer, have launched FutureLearn, and the media hype has started all over again.
I confess to a slight case of agnosticism on MOOCs. I’m not opposed to them, though I do wonder about the real motivation of those promoting them. That could just be the cynic in me, but perhaps it is also about what I think education should be about.
The FutureLearn website, much like Corsera and the other MOOC providers make much of their commitment to opening up the world of education to those currently denied access. It is hard to disagree with that aim, and if that is genuinely what MOOCs are all about then they are a force for good, and I not only share the excitement of the FutureLearn team (see picture below), but their aspirations.

I am certainly an advocate of opening up education, and I believe that online learning is an important way of doing so. But, and there is always a but isn’t there, they worry me. It may be the sheer scale of them. I signed up to one with Dukes University and the initial numbers were awe inspiring, even for somebody from the Open University.
I’ve always enjoyed the look on people’s faces when I tell them the size of our largest module. Our Level One social sciences course has upwards of 6,000 students a year. But that number pales into insignificance compared to the 1,600,000 who were on the Dukes University MOOC with me. However, the trick is not how many students you sign up, but how many are still there at the end. MOOCs are rather more vague than the Open University on this score. One reason being that many students on MOOCs are similar to me. I had effectively stopped doing the course after week 3, not because the course was no good, but because I had managed to get behind and didn’t have the time to catch up.
How good is a MOOC? That’s a difficult question to answer. They are, of course, varied, and the completion rates will be affected by numerous factors including all the obvious one’s well known to us at the Open University. But one thing that MOOCs have in common, to date, is that they do not include any formal assessment. Though that is starting to change as the business model of MOOCs is also changing in an attempt to monetise them.
The lack of assessment is, on the one hand, clearly an incentive to take a MOOC. On the other hand, assessments motivate students to complete courses. Indeed, most students are overly obsessed with assessment. Just ask their lecturers.
My objection to the MOOC model, and perhaps objection is too strong a word, is the lack of tutors supporting student learning. Of course, well motivated students don’t need tutors to support their learning, they just get on with it. But, sadly, those students are few and far between. Most students have difficulties with understanding, with motivation, with support and with administration. In other words, most students need a tutor if they are not only to pass the course but also get the best they are able from it.
That tutor support can be delivered either face-to-face or online, but I do think it is a weakness of the MOOC model that it is dependent upon peer support to help students who may be struggling. It is the reason why I think students will continue to pay to attend university, and why MOOCs will prove to be a passing fad.

Simply the best

I’ve been thinking about this notion of excellence. If teaching has to be measured against some notion of excellence, then we need to think carefully about what we mean by excellence. To recall: a couple of weeks ago I reported an email exchange with a colleague who claimed that “excellent face to face teaching” was the gold standard against which online teaching should be measured. Fair enough, you might think. After all, we need a standard to aspire to.
But whilst the idea of a gold standard is a good rhetorical device I’m not convinced that it helps us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of various ways of teaching. Let us suppose that there is something about face to face teaching that makes it intrinsically better than online teaching. The question is: what exactly is it? Perhaps it is a necessary condition of learning that it must take place in a classroom environment. But, this seems unlikely as we all learn in a variety of ways. As Kolb (1984) argues knowledge is obtained by transforming our experiences. What he doesn’t say is that this process has to take place in a classroom. It is possible, presumably, that reflecting on experience could take place in a classroom, but for knowledge to be obtained doesn’t seem to require a classroom (or a teacher come to that), but simply experiences.
I regard the gold standard argument as fallacious on so many levels. At best it is a distraction, but particularly so when it is used as a means to polarise a debate. The real problem with excellence as a gold standard, however, is more practical than moral. If “excellence” is the standard, almost by definition it is one few teachers will be able to reach. To be excellent is ‘to excel’, or to perform above the average. But if excellence is to have any common sense meaning it has to be measured against the average. If that is the case then the majority of teaching – whether face-to-face or online – must be average. After all, isn’t that the nature of averages? In which case it cannot be excellent.
So where does this lead us? I have said elsewhere that in my opinion it is time to move away from a debate that centres on the relative merits or otherwise of one mode of delivery versus another. All this leads to is a game of tit-for-tat where one side gives an example of so-called excellent teaching in their favoured mode; only for the other side to counter with examples that are far from excellent from the same mode of delivery. This is both infantile and futile.
We should accept that only a narrow range of teaching, however delivered, can be excellent. The majority of teaching will be average, and a minority will be below average (and if an image of a well known colleague down the hall doesn’t jump into your mind at the notion of below average, you are fortunate to work in a very privileged environment). There is no debate any longer about technology in the classroom or as a means to deliver education. Online education, with all that entails, is here and is not going away any time soon. For those colleagues who think they can resist by finding examples of what doesn’t work I would respectfully point out to them that they are no more likely to turn back the tide than was Canute (who incidentally, did not believe he could but was demonstrating his inability to do so).
There is a bigger issue: how do we raise the average level of teaching? How do we ensure that every student has opportunities to develop to their individual potential, and what is the role of teaching in that learning? Here, the notion of excellence might be useful. If, and it is a big if, we could identify what it is that makes some teaching excellent, then we could try to encourage an approach that not so much raised the average as reduced its range.
So what is excellent teaching? There is a short review of literature at the Schreyer Institute website which lists the following: subject expert, excellent communicator, and student-centred. Having both given and observed teaching in a face-to-face setting and online, these apply in both settings equally. The most important qualities a good teacher needs are enthusiasm, being approachable and a willingness to creatively experiment. These qualities allow experienced classroom practitioners to move into online environments and rather than regarding them as something alien and different, see them as a challenging addition to their existing skills. Whether they can be taught or not is a debate for another post.