In the post-Trump, near Brexit, world where knowledge, understanding, truth and even facts become slippery, society needs the skills a university can teach more than ever.
But are we teaching in a way that actually satisfies the needs of society and of our students? And is the whole experience of university being aligned to support our students as they learn?
This is a topic I’ve been thinking long and hard about over the past few months, especially as we hurtle towards a post-Brexit world (or not…) of uncertainty and fear. It would, clearly, be left-field for me as a vice chancellor to suggest that higher education institutions are no longer relevant – but it is only proper to question their utility, and only fair to ask about their efficacy over the last few years.
As all of us who love universities know, our role is to ask the next, effective, question. In research, this allows us to drive discourse and innovation across the whole ambit of study that we undertake. In teaching, it allows us to give students a toolkit for the unknown (a phrase I owe to a good friend and borrow shamelessly), which is the only possible response to the shouted assertions of the day. But our real challenge is: How we do this, because at the moment, and self-evidently, we are very easy to ignore.
Appropriate to fogey
As academics, we tend to value ideas that are presented in text, and particularly in well-written text. Pictures, diagrams, memes, video and worse, we engage with reluctantly and any slip of syntax or grammar is regarded as a slip of logic. But is this fair? Are we, in fact, like monks bemoaning our novice’s poor use of colour as the presses churn out a new way of representing meaning? I wonder if our role is to reflect young people’s way of doing things now, as well as their way of learning – not the ways of previous generations including ours. I think we need to continuously modernise our teaching methods and challenge ourselves against the scale of appropriate-to-fogey. We also have to bear in mind our intended outcomes, which are well summarised by the skills the World Economic Forum identified as its “4Cs for success” in the 21st century: critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration. And ditch the apprenticeship model that means a good thought is one presented as we did, back in the day.
If we get this right, will we perhaps relieve some of the pressure that is allowing mental health challenges to persist in universities regardless of the support we offer learners? I can’t help but feel that we are trying to fix people so that they can learn in a way that breaks them again. Would we be letting standards slip if we did things differently? I can’t think how to use a closed-book exam to explore collaboration or creativity, and it is an unusual way to test communication or critical thinking as well. At a time when we are accused of lowering our standards, it will take courage to change our ways. But I think that may be what is needed if we are to teach young people well, now.
Then again, as an academy, our forays into other means of learning and of testing learning are clumsy and reluctant. We explore digital affordances all the way to the virtual filing cabinets of our VLEs, record our excruciating lectures in full, and formulate the wild learning of the internet into MOOCS. I am reminded of my awkward attempts to make my children read the instructions before they began to use their new mobile device. If we are willing to practice what we preach, and learn from experts, we have them, by the dozen, in every classroom and seminar. I think the future lies in harnessing their skills with ours by exploring radical ways to engage with information and then applying the most rigorous approaches to its curation and interrogation.
If learning is difficult, and deep learning especially so, are we creating effective spaces to engage with this demanding process? I fear that we generate stress where it is worthless, and reduce the capacity of our students to engage in intellectual stretch. To learn well, and to engage with the deep joy of learning, students need to be able to focus. It is up to us to take away as much of the pointless stresses of university as we can, so that we can expect students to focus on the ones that really matter, around learning and growing.
At Bath Spa University, we have started the process of de-stressing university at the start, with the means of entry. Our “3, 2, 1, Go!” approach involves providing a guaranteed offer to those who can demonstrate they have the talent and passion to succeed, whether this is through an interview, audition or by sharing a portfolio of work; a cash incentive for those who exceed their predicted grades, encouraging them to challenge themselves despite having already secured a place at university; and a guaranteed offer of accommodation for those who accept their place with us.
Our aim is to relieve some of the stresses faced by young people applying for a place at university, to recognise the ability to study whether or not that is synonymous with the ability to thrive in exams, but at the same time to encourage ambition and reward effort. It is an unusual, but not unique approach, but it encapsulates our values and intentions. Our next step will be to extend our transition to university to encourage learners to move into the open-ended learning spaces of HE. We are already exploring ways to teach & learn across disciplines, with our project-focused SPA weeks.
Discomfort for students or for us?
I think higher education is at a fork in the road. We can retrench into the traditional ways of doing things, which are more amenable to measurement by the available metrics and – frankly – feel comfortable. Or we can explore learning alongside our students, seeing their skills and abilities as a key asset in the way we design our university. On the way, we will be accused of dumbing down, and the comments below the line will become rich and trenchant, but I think learning has hit a moment of paradigm shift, and that our students (and possibly even society) will be better served by this course.