Collaborative Learning and Teaching in Higher Ed: Approaching the Crossroads

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Institutional centres for learning and teaching serve vitally important functions in higher education.  They focus on core educational activities.  However, across the country, for a variety of reasons, these offices are at a crossroads.  I’d like to consider at least some of the factors creating change as we move ahead to a 21st century learning and teaching environment.

What is the 'place' of teaching in higher education?
What is the ‘place’ of teaching in higher education?

The impetus to create centres for learning and teaching in the 1970s and 1980s arose from three main developments.

First, there was an explosive growth in literature in the educational field that could inform teaching and contribute to better learning outcomes.

Second, governments increased pressure on higher education institutions to make use of resources more efficiently and effectively.

Third, there was a growing unrest among students concerning the quality of instruction (understandably, given the rising cost of tuition and the declining relative value of a degree in an increasingly competitive job market).

Despite their prominence, these three sets of priorites (dissemination of knowledge, the need for cost savings, and response to demands) represent very different, often conflicting, pathways for institutions.  The need for cost savings conflicts with the desire for student access to quality teaching, and student demands sometimes conflict with the best practices of teaching.  As well, there has been an incomplete fit between the growth in teaching-oriented professional development and improved student learning outcomes overall.

The ‘Place’ of Teaching

In research universities, teaching has often been considered a ‘lower tier’ of academic activities .  This is not without reason if the focus is on graduate education, since on average only 30% of PhDs actually go on to academic positions in which teaching is a primary activity. Given this, it makes little sense to ask graduate students to devote a lot of time to prepare to be teachers. In addition, the universities’ focus on research as a source of funding means fewer expenditures on other initiatives with less potential for return.  As a result, despite the fact that teaching occupies a considerable amount of professors’ time and energy, professional recognition or institutional support for teaching remains comparatively low.  While less apparent in teaching-oriented universities and colleges, the same dynamics are at work driving teaching-oriented professional development at other institutions.

Despite their prominence, these three sets of priorites (dissemination of knowledge, the need for cost savings, and response to demands) represent very different, often conflicting, pathways for institutions.

The Great Acceleration

All three of the conditions that contributed to the creation of learning and teaching offices in higher education still persist.  The growth in knowledge about learning, student expectations, and governmental belt-tightening are still at work.  However, almost everything else about the environment has changed, creating a sense of flux and transition, opening up new opportunities and choices.

The crossroads confronting education is at least in part, a function of the wave of disruptive technology, including mobile and online options, which has upended education.  New technologies diffuse power, eroding the monopoly of knowledge and expertise.  This is evident in the boardroom as well as the classroom.  In response, managing technological transition has become a key focus for centres for learning and teaching.  The technological imperative is accompanied by the perception among administators (although not necessarily the reality) that new technologies will create cost savings and that students will demand them.  The drive to incorporate and disseminate new educational technologies and to encourage their adoption by faculty has become central.

Administrative Imperatives

The fear of being overtaken by competitors is almost overwhelming. As W.D. Smith pointed out in Maclean’s a few years ago, the drive to be competitive (which incurs increasing costs for recruitment advertising and change management) are causing ballooning administrative costs.  CBC news reports that “non-academic full-time salaries at Ontario universities, adjusted for inflation, rose 78 per cent from 2000/01 to 2013/14, from $934 million to nearly $1.7 billion (Davison, March 16 2015).”

The 2012 removal of Teresa Sullivan as President of the University of Virginia was motivated largely by concerns over “competition, technology and scarce resources.”  Her subsequent reinstatement after an outcry from students and faculty vindicated her view that “corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university (Sampson, Aug 27 2012).”

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Professional development that uses a transmission model is less suited to a world of rapid technological change.

The pressure to compete and for cost control also accelerates a focus on superficial measurement of professional development activities.  As Broad and Evans point out in their summary of the PD literature, “evaluation connected to professional development tends to consist of “counting” or recording activities or outlining the activities undertaken with no analysis of their impact on learning or practice (25).”

Growth in Knowledge

The second big change is around the literature on learning and teaching.  There is little agreement on what kinds of professional development actually lead educators to improve their teaching practice.  The result is a cacophony of conflicting advice and forces. Approaches veer between the extremes of standardized delivery models on the one hand, and collaborative peer-led models of professional development on the other.

The complexity and ambiguity of learning and teaching, as evidenced by the trends in the literature, defies an easy fit into the ‘one size fits all’ model of delivery.   Together with the trend toward knowledge sharing facilitated by network technologies, the need for a collaborative model of professional development is increasingly apparent.

The benefit of a collaborative approach is its recognition and respect for diversities of opinion and for the knowledge and experience of teaching practitioners.  This philosophy prioritizes bottom-up expertise, dialogue, exchange of knowledge, problem-solving, realistic expectations, caring for the teacher and learner, and, at its core, a recognition of the ambiguity of the practice of teaching and learning.  It prioritizes a consultative, open, and mutually supportive culture that recognizes disciplinary knowledge and respects differences while working to improve student learning outcomes by building relationships.

The complexity and ambiguity of learning and teaching, as evidenced by the trends in the literature, defies an easy fit into the ‘one size fits all’ model of delivery.

This approach, while true to the state of the literature on learning and teaching, is at odds with the third driver, that of improved cost-effectiveness.  It is also at odds with the increasing pressures to be competitive and cutting-edge in an era of shifting technologies.  Managing change under this philosophy is slow, incremental, and consensus-driven.

Growing philosophies of learning focus the process on the learner.
What is the ‘place’ of teaching in higher education?

The future of learning and teaching will be shaped by many conflicting forces. Shifting student demand, changing technologies, and a focus on organizational efficiency and measurable outcomes will continue to influence decisions.  Proceeding as if all options are possible (and compatible) only deepens the cacophony and reduces effectiveness.   Managing change in this transition means going beyond superficial forms of consultation to create new, more inclusive and open forms of collaboration.  This is in line with the levelling influence of technology, and is a good fit with the dominant philosophies of education, which increasingly recognize the need to acknowledge and include the learner in all dimensions of the educational process.

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