UniServe Science News Volume 16 July 2000


From the Director

Ian Johnston
Director, UniServe Science

I've been thinking about the future of university teaching quite a lot lately. Perhaps it's because I'm coming up to retirement at the end of the year (from my university position, that is, not from UniServe Science) which always encourages reflection. But three particular things happened lately which have got me thinking.

The first was a newspaper article which drew attention to the hard times both students and staff in our universities are experiencing these days1. It contained a quote which caught my eye: 'Years of shaving funds from the university system have undermined the university experience'. Spot on. When I look back, it seems to me that for nearly 20 years now, the budget of my home department has tightened, relentlessly, year after year. Occasionally, extra funds were made available by Canberra - 'clawed back' was their chilling phrase - but always at the expense of more forms to fill out, more applications to write, more futures to mortgage. Staff numbers have gone down: student numbers have gone up. When I was a young academic I spent a lot of time thinking about my teaching, more perhaps, from the point of view of my research, than I should. Young academics cannot do that these days. Nobody has time any more to think much about what they are doing.

The second was the realization of the plight that my department is going to face next year. I am not the only one who is retiring. In the next 18 months, eight academics, out of a department of thirty, will go. That's more than 25%. Those that remain will have to keep up their research of course, and their teaching load will go up by 30%. And there doesn't seem to be much hope of any of those positions being filled. Now this is just one isolated example of course. But I've heard enough stories from all over to suggest that many other departments have had comparable 'restructurings' within the last few years, or will have them within the next few. You can't help thinking the system is just going to grind to a halt at some stage. That's why there is so much talk by administrators these days about the need to do teaching more efficiently, and about the possibility that flexibility and the new technologies might help. That brings me to the third item.

UniServe Science recently hosted a colloquium, unfortunately available only to academics in the Sydney basin, on distance learning and on-line course delivery. The speaker was Professor Lynne Schrum from the University of Georgia, immediate past president of the International Society for Technology in Education, and she was in Australia to give the keynote address to a conference of Australasian Computers in Education Conference in Melbourne. She gave us a comprehensive overview of the issues and difficulties in attaining successful learning by means of on-line courses, and if she got across any message it was that the issues are many and the difficulties great. In fact I, and many of my colleagues, came away from that talk convinced that there was no way that flexibility and the new technologies are going to do our teaching for less money.

You see, the undeniable fact is that the traditional lecture, which is the prime feature of most universities' teaching, cannot be beaten for cost efficiency. One person spending one hour in front of a class of 100+ students will give more teaching per dollar than any viable alternative. Even if you allow an extra hour of teacher's time for preparation, that's still true. It doesn't matter that research shows that the traditional lecture is a very ineffective means of promoting understanding for all but a very few students. No one ever tries to measure the amount of learning gained per dollar spent. It's always the number of students taught per dollar that counts. That may be deplorable, but it's the way the world runs.

I think that is the real challenge facing those of us who are particularly interested in teaching and teaching innovations. We're comfortable with the idea that our students are struggling and need all the help we can give them. That's why we have spent so much time and effort aiming at flexibility, at giving students alternative ways of learning. The trouble is that offering two different ways of learning, by definition, costs more than offering one way. It is time we faced the idea that our departments are also struggling and need all the help we can give them. We've got to find a way of helping students learn that does not cost more than our traditional lectures, tutorials and labs. The new technologies should be able to help. We just have to keep trying.

  1. The University of Hard Knocks by Malcolm Knox, The Sydney Morning Herald, July 9, 2000.

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UniServe Science News Volume 16 July 2000

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