UniServe Science News Volume 11 November 1998


From the Director

Ian Johnston
Director, UniServe Science

Let's be flexible about this

At an address to the National Press Club in Canberra on 25 February of this year, Professor John Niland, the Vice-Chancellor of The University of New South Wales, drew attention to the serious decline of student interest in science in this country. He expressed particular concern that the numbers enrolling in physics and chemistry have grown at only 60% of the rate at which total enrolments have increased; and that in mathematics the growth rate is negative.

Professor Niland identified many causes for this trend, including the perception that the quality of science teaching is worse than in the humanities and social sciences. Whether that perception is justified or not, he argues that there needs to be a revolution in university science teaching to emphasise communication skills and cross-disciplinary awareness, and to start collaborative and cross-campus teaching via the Internet or multimedia delivery. In addition, all this must be achieved with increasingly limited resources as further "streamlining" of departments continues.

These are, of course, issues that dedicated university science teachers have recognised and have been thinking about for some time now. Earlier issues of UniServe Science News have contained many articles on how our teaching might be adapted to just these areas. Titles like "Tutoring on the WWW", "The UK's Higher Education Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP)", "Communicating to Teach and Communicating to Learn" and "Studio Teaching: When the Future Becomes the Present" (which come from our last four issues) are good examples. If one phrase could sum them all up it would be Flexible Learning.

"Flexible Learning" is of course the catch-cry that is currently fashionable amongst university administrators, even if there is the suspicion that they do not know exactly what it means. It means more than simply designing more packages that will give students more choice, although that is part of it. It includes rethinking teaching structures so that students can be exposed to materials they would not otherwise be able to experience, or that teachers can interact with students in ways they couldn't before. It includes paying real attention to teaching effectiveness, without ignoring questions of cost efficiency. Above all it includes the possibility of collaborative teaching at all levels, across departments and across universities.

We believe that flexible learning is indeed the goal on which we should all be setting our sights. Therefore our next workshop will be devoted to this topic. We ask everyone who reads this newsletter to ask themself this question: Is your department successfully teaching in some mode which is different from the traditional lectures/labs/tutorials, and which might contribute to a pool of experience on which other departments might call?

If it is, then think about coming to this workshop and letting others know about it. If not, then come anyway, and hear what others are doing. As Professor Niland implied, your department will probably need to be doing something different soon, like it or not.

So - start planning your travel budgets for 1999 now, and put top of the list:

Flexible Learning: Future Choices for University Science Teaching
The University of Sydney
Friday - Saturday, April 9 - 10, 1999.

[Professor Niland's speech is reproduced in The Australian and New Zealand Physicist, 35 (4), 1998, pp 165 - 174.]

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UniServe Science News Volume 11 November 1998

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