A mix of teaching methods is best

Universities must grasp new technology opportunities to teach and engage students if they are to remain credible and competitive, writes David Tordoff.

Prof John Villasenor's article "Remote university courses fail to engage" gives a fascinating insight into university education and the problems therein.

However, his statements are so misleading they could be damaging.

His argument is underpinned by misconceptions and ignores the evidence available.

Perhaps starting with some definite facts will be helpful.

Most academics may be excellent researchers in their own specialist fields but are rarely involved in educational research.

University academics get little or no training in teaching and in many countries (including New Zealand) are not required to hold a teaching qualification.

Fortunately this is changing, particularly in Europe.

The Open University (UK) established in 1969 has helped 1.6 million students achieve their learning goals, currently has 250,000 students and has consistently been in the top three UK universities for student satisfaction, joint third with Oxford in 2011.

So much for "remote" teaching failing to engage students.

Much research has been done into teaching and learning, with mixed results.

This is not surprising.

Many issues make teaching and learning complex subjects.

However, a number of themes have been fairly consistent.

Being a good researcher does not equate to being a good teacher.

Some researchers are excellent teachers but others should be kept well away from students.

Motivation is fundamental.

This is where lectures can be useful, but we should be aiming at self-motivation.

Learners build on what they already know.

Long-term memory is large, but working memory is limited.

Multimedia is more effective than single media.

Applying this knowledge of educational principles to our practice will lead to more effective learning.

Lectures are the traditional method of university teaching.

Developed when books were rare and knowledge held by few, lectures had a place.

Fast-forward from the 12th century to the 21st century and we need to have a rethink.

Ultimately, lectures are a way of delivering information to a large group efficiently from a teaching-administrative perspective.

Villasenor's description is often inaccurate; many lectures are best described as "talking heads".

The message to the students is, "I know, you don't, so listen and learn".

The reality is that the students learn outside the lecture and the delivery could be done in many other ways.

The popularity of podcasts demonstrates this well.

The underlying problem with Villasenor's argument is that it is teacher-centred.

We need to remember the prime function of university for students: it is student learning.

The role of the staff is to help students learn and this should be done using all the methods at our disposal, even lectures on occasion.

Much emphasis is placed on the need for students to be "lifelong learners" and to gain the skills necessary for this; a purpose the teacher-centred approach will rarely achieve.

The research around student learning is interesting.

While students often say they prefer to be in a face-to-face situation with the teacher, they usually perform better in ensuing tests when they have learnt online.

US research has shown that "e-learning" is at least as effective as class-based learning.

Current thinking is that a "blended" approach to learning is most effective; a mixture of class-based seminars, workshops and online/audio-visual activities.

The key is to ensure the teacher's input recognises how students learn and provides support, constructive feedback and additional resources to guide the learner.

A great advantage of online or distance learning is that the students can engage with the material at a time that suits them.

With modern technology, it is possible to have discussions that are not time-bound so there is no need for that isolation or lack of community at which Villasenor hints.

Remote courses, just like poor classroom teaching, will fail to engage if they are not structured well and do not take into account the various nuances of the approaches being used.

The modern technologies available enable us to move away from a pre-industrial approach to teaching and to engage students in ways we have never before been able.

Universities must grasp these opportunities if they are to remain credible and competitive in the global 21st-century context.

- David Tordoff is medical education adviser at the Dunedin School of Medicine.


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