On lectures and other things #isolation

Being in a high risk category, I’ve been in isolation for over two weeks now, and I’ve hardly been out the door in the last week. Despite the fact that I’ve spent massive amounts of time staring at my phone, I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking and reflecting about education. Here are some of the things that have crossed my mind.

  1. I’m no longer sure of the value of face-to-face lectures

Over the years I have defended the lecture on many occasions. In doing so, I drew on my experience as a student. But my thinking was too heavily affected by memories of the very small number of outstanding lecturers I encountered in UCD and Cornell. It now occurs to me that I have vivid memories of some of those lecturers for the simple reason that they were very rare. Most of our lectures were dull and involved little more than transcribing notes from the lecturer’s slides. One of my lecturers, an organic chemist, used to put pre-written acetates on the projector, say virtually nothing, and then stare out the window. He got through four of these acetates in every lecture. He clearly hated his job.

I think there is an important point here that we should bear in mind when thinking about education in general. As Adam Boxer wisely noted, we need to judge specific approaches to teaching not only in terms of their efficacy but in terms of how difficult these approaches are to implement. Group work would be a good example and lectures might well be the same. There is no doubt that lectures can ‘work’. But maybe they don’t work very often especially when delivered by untrained academics.

  1. I’ve more empathy for students who lack motivation

At the moment, my motivation levels are low. I find it very difficult to keep to a schedule and get to grips with my to-do list. I’m procrastinating big time – because I can. It’s understandable I suppose in the circumstances but I think it’s given me some insight into why many students find it difficult to study until the last minute especially in a world full of distractions. It’s not necessarily laziness on their part; it’s just that they can’t summon up the activation energy.

  1. I suspect that higher education is over-regulated

Although I served as associate dean for teaching and leaning for three and a half years, I was and am of the view that we have made the higher education system over-bureaucratic and over-regulated. There is very little room for spontaneity anymore. I think much of this stems from a genuine desire to improve the system and make us all more accountable. That’s fine with me. But I also think that many people in ‘management’ (mainly academics actually) lack trust in their colleagues and put in place procedures that are designed not to make the system better but to exert control over academics who they don’t trust to carry out their job in a responsible manner. The reality is that despite the many ‘check and balances’ that are put in place, the small few academics who do behave irresponsibly tend to be able to get away with it. When we reflect on the response to the current crisis, the question of balancing trust and accountability will be something worth talking about.

  1. We need to discuss laboratories

I’ve lots of thinking to do on this so I won’t say much here other than to note that laboratories are costly and given the upcoming surge in the number of school-leavers, labs are a serious bottleneck when it comes to increasing student numbers. I think this is a really important issue for DCU because laboratories have, since NIHE days, been a core part of our identity as a university. Some thinking outside the box (sorry!) will be required.

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