University Teaching Methods Mired in the Past

By Mason, Gregory | Winnipeg Free Press, December 30, 2016 | Go to article overview

University Teaching Methods Mired in the Past


Mason, Gregory, Winnipeg Free Press


With the cessation of the recent labour action by the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, it is an opportune time to reflect on why the strike occurred.

It is tempting to see this issue in classic Marxist terms, where the workers (faculty with salaries ranging from $75,000 to $140,000 per year) defend their rights against administrators who have been captured by a corporate agenda. Equally, one can view it as an administration holding the line, in the face of revenue constraint and enrolment increases, while confronted by a faculty that seeks undue control.

Some truth exists in both views, but not a lot. More profound are two disruptions that have fundamentally changed the nature of post-secondary education in Canada: technology and globalization.

My favourite definition of a university lecture is that it is "the magical process whereby the notes of the instructor transfer to the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either."

When I started teaching university 43 years ago, lectures consisted of verbal presentations, typically augmented by a chalkboard. Most baby boomers who attended university can recall the most effective lecturers as those who could be entertaining and informative and, most importantly, could present in a way that allowed the students to take good notes. Attending lectures was necessary to get a good grade.

In the last four decades, we have witnessed a revolution in learning. The most important change is that students have lost their memory. We now confront the iPad factor. Who needs to remember anything when a smartphone and Dr. Google are the sources of all knowledge? I am as guilty as anyone when, as I am dining with friends, I reach for my phone to discover who starred in the original Ben-Hur . The externalization of memory matches the explosion of facts and knowledge.

Top Hat, an educational software company, recently surveyed 22,000 university teachers. One of its striking findings was that most had experienced exponentially growing expectations from students to create a multimedia approach to delivering learning. Modern students are accustomed to accessing knowledge from social media and the web. They expect their university learning to reflect the same production values as Facebook, with interactivity and instant response. With everything online, lectures become optional.

Now, here is the problem. Graduate school, the qualifying process to become a university teacher, does not include training in multimedia. Yet that is the way knowledge is currently delivered. Faculty are caught in a very difficult bind. To acquire the multimedia skills that students have come to expect requires a massive investment of time.

This is a risky prospect for many, since it jeopardizes their research programs, and every faculty member knows publications and grant funding are the sure paths to promotion.

Universities are trying to invest in learning technologies, but the pace of innovation is extraordinary. Consider remote proctoring, the process of examining students online using secure authentication technologies that forestall cheating. Once dynamic multimedia takes over lectures and secure examination occurs online, will we need classrooms? How many "live" teachers will we need? I gave a brilliant lecture on marginal cost pricing in 1979; if I had that lecture on video, I would not need to constantly redo it.

The second disruption is globalization. In 2000, the University of Manitoba had 693 international students out of a total enrolment of 21,083, meaning they constituted three per cent of the whole. By 2014, this had climbed to 15 per cent (4,464 out of 29,657). …

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