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The Future of Undergraduate Teaching

Many a university president has felt a frisson on reading the news that various consortia are intent on forging an online teaching presence that will reach out in what might seem to some like a quasi-imperial way (not just MIT and Stanford but also Embanet/Compass, 2tor, Coursera and the Minerva Project). No one I know thinks that these online consortia will have immediate effects in the manner of the raft of books that are direct descendants from the dot.com days, with all their corporate techno-hype (see the recent piece by Hiltzik on this agenda). But no one I know thinks that things will just stay the same either.

So what might happen?

Here is one possible scenario. First, most teaching in the early years of an undergraduate degree will gradually cease to be via lectures and will instead take the form of online presentations produced by professionally trained presenters backed up by teams of academics. This online content will be paralleled by peer tuition (or teaching by questioning) which, when done well, is clearly effective (see here and here), and the associated growth of so-called learning analytics. Lectures may well become special occasions in which the best-known academics make their presence felt. Meanwhile, small group teaching will make a come-back in all years, especially in the best universities. In other words, a new hybrid will take the place of the old, one in which I suspect that face-to-face experience and other forms of direct experience (like international experience) will actually become more valued.

Second, both learning and assessment will increasingly be peer to peer via social networks with academics acting as moderators and sources of advice. This has been happening anyway in many institutions but it may well become a normal model of learning interaction, combining with face to face in various ways.

Third, the spaces of teaching will multiply. Of course, there will still be lecture rooms and tutorial spaces. But more spaces will become adaptable and more spaces will become possible points of learning. Again, these things have been happening anyway. Now they may well become general.

Such a scenario might well unbalance the higher-education system. Most older academics, at least, will be more than a little concerned by them. But there is no reason to think that they will become the equivalent of the 19th century hand loom weavers. Certainly they will need to acquire a battery of skills that they may not yet have. Certainly, there are real issues over workloads (no one I know thinks that the growth of online will necessarily produce a decline in workloads). But, at the same time, many of these academics will be pleased to see the return of more intimate teaching styles wherein they can be certain that knowledge is being imparted and worked with creatively.

These events disturb one other delicate balance, too. In the past, there was a very definite compact in U.S. higher education so far as teaching was concerned. The elite ‘one percenter’ universities were well off and populated by staff who lived comfortably. These universities taught very few students but, obviously, given their wealth and consequent ability to buy excellent staff and small staff-student ratios, taught them well. The state universities and community colleges taught the bulk of students, often very well indeed but obviously in larger classes on the whole. Now that balance is being disturbed and the elite universities can seem like they want it all. This is going to be a real tension in U.S. higher education which, I suspect, will be mirrored all around the world as elite universities indulge in what might seem like the IT equivalent of a land grab in pursuit of further boosts to their reputation. In other words, we may be about to recreate the Wild West. I won’t extend the analogy!

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Brett Jordan]

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