a maelstrom of ideas around education 1

Of late, I’ve been caught up in a circle, indeed a maelstrom, of ideas around education in general and about the role of the university in particular.  None of the ideas that make up this maelstrom are original to me, and I don’t have answers to any of them.

Some of them are discussed in the thought provoking and engaging video on reinventing the university  (It is 16 minutes and 13 seconds well spent.)  But they are ideas that I think everyone involved in university education and university teaching will benefit from some time spent in pondering them and their consequences.

My plan is to spend this first blog laying out some of these ideas, seasoned a bit by my own experience.  The first of these is the nature of the university itself.  Though I am not an expert on the subject, the current model of the research led university is a relatively recent invention, going back to the mid to late 18th century.   How we structure our programmes of study might be more recent than this, going back perhaps to the mid 20th century.

Students spend 3 or 4 years at university, studying a variety of modules or courses or units, the terminology being somewhat geographically and temporally dependent.  And here, there is a large difference between the US and UK systems.  I’ll focus on the latter, as I’m more familiar with it.  In the UK system, students typically spend 3 years studying a single topic, perhaps 2 topics if on a joint degree programme, sometimes but not always having the opportunity to take an occasional module away from their major topic(s).

But one of the growing debates at the moment is whether universities are doing a sufficiently good job not only of educating students in their chosen topic of study, but also in the preparation of students for life after university.  This is a slightly nuanced question, because universities are not by their nature necessarily vocationally focused, and indeed it cuts to the heart of the fundamental question: what is the purpose of a university and what is the purpose of a university education?

In days of old, facts were expensive to acquire and expensive to store and archive.  Universities were the places where these facts were stored and from which they were disseminated.  But the world has changed and facts are cheap.  And so to be somewhat provocative, I don’t feel that universities can any longer have the mere dissemination of facts as a primary part of their mission.  Rather, we need to focus on the sifting and processing and creative use of facts.

There is a similarity here between the role of universities and the role of libraries.  Libraries still have as part of their mission the lending of books, but they are also increasingly places where people can access the internet and which provide people with collaborative spaces in which to work.

Another fundamental question, another strand in this discussion, is the extent to which individual modules and entire programmes of study at universities are structured for the convenience of members of academic staff, the lecturers and professors, rather than for the convenience of the students.  And again, there is nuance to this question.  The academic staff are experienced professionals who in some cases have been teaching for decades, and we learn a lot over this time.  But I nonetheless think that this is a reasonable question that everyone teaching at universities should reflect upon.

Beyond this, there is the question of how we teach, by which I mean, how we present the material to the students and how we make use of the time in the class room.  I won’t bring that into the current discussion as I’m exploring some aspects of this in my own working life elsewhere.



~ by Jim Anderson on 8 August 2016.

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