Thursday, 15 October 2009

Voting with their virtual feet!

Here is evidence of an unanticipated outcome for teaching, learning, the impact of technology and the increase in the offerings of the open-content and courseware in last week's Chronicle of Higher Education. Not withstanding the claimed importance and engagement (by some) of face-2-face classes and the potential for direct engagement, students are voting with their virtual feet to get their education from online courses being published by the likes of MIT or Harvard or the University of New South Wales (some quite popular courses). See HERE or

This recent story begs several questions, not the least of which is: "What happens when your line manager/ Departmental Head finds out (from the ubiquitous teaching and learning evaluations that every student in universities and colleges completes at the end of every course) that the students in your class prefer an online presentation from you?" What does this mean for staff evaluations of teaching? How is likely to impact on tenure and promotion? What does this mean for student enrollments, university reputation, and esteem to which a department is held?

Good teaching is not really a secret. Good teaching includes such things as profound knowledge of the subject domain, being focused on key concepts and ideas rather than just covering the content domain, being pro-active in addressing student learning problems and responding quickly through a variety of channels, having high expectations of students, employing teaching and learning strategies that are aligned with the activities, elements of assessment and intended learning outcomes, a commitment to support and encourage independent learning, and an ability to motivate and engage students, to name a few key factors. Good teaching is not necessarily easy either.

I am not for one second taking the view that teaching is more important than research output in such questions related to tenure and promotion (not in my part of the world anyway) but teaching does count for most academic staff in their performance reviews. Very poor reviews such as those articulated by the students in the Chronicle article would not sit well with senior staff concerned about the reputation of the university (at least not in my institution). Ultimately, students may initially vote with their virtual feet for a few classes or lectures, but eventually they are likely to take their custom elsewhere as well. Something for all of us involved in teaching and learning to remember.

I remember my first year undergraduate physics lecturer well - but not kindly. If I could have gone elsewhere at that time, I would have!

Comments welcome.