Why would students want to come to class?

This morning I read an article in The Age summarising a recent conference held at the University of Melbourne on high-speed broadband and higher education, Online Challenge to Campus Life. In it was a quote from ANU Vice Chancellor, Professor Ian Young:

Why in the world would students come along and … sit in a passive lecture with 300 other students when they can access material online themselves. It makes no sense to me

The article then goes on to discuss how universities will need to offer additional value, based around research, in order to remain of use in a world where online open courses will take over as the main education medium. It does caution that we need to balance our push towards online learning with issues of equity, needing to ensure that all potential students have access to the technical resources necessary to take part in online classes, but to me, this article is really missing the point as to the real issue here. Let’s look at the quote again: “why in the world would students come along and … sit in a passive lecture…”

Why would students watch a passive online lecture instead?

There is no real value for a student to sit in a passive lecture. That is why I haven’t given one of those in years. Why would you? We know so much about ways of engaging students, and the benefits of active and collaborative learning, and I know many Academics who incorporate these elements into all of their classes, whether they be held in a lecture theatre or in a small tutorial classroom. The value that you get there is through the group formation of understanding, process and self regulation skills, and mental models; the ability to discuss, share knowledge, argue and create – can we provide, currently, the same environments online to produce the same results? I don’t think we know quite how to do this yet, either in the technology space or in the pedagogy. And to be blunt, even where we do know how to achieve this in face-to-face environments, we have not yet mastered how to create descriptions of pedagogy that are relevant and transferable to many academics.

Replacing a passive face to face lecture with an passive online lecture does not help us achieve very much. We can deliver content to students remotely, which means that some students will have access to content that they were not able to access previously. But, of course, currently, providing content online will also cut access for other students. Providing equitable access to resources is a fantastic thing, but we aren’t going to make the education experience any better if all we do is move lecturing online. We need to recognise the benefit that good pedagogy can provide, and that we need to further develop online learning technologies and pedagogy before we are going to be able to achieve the same benefits in that space.

Rushing to move online, whether it be because we think we can make more money, or provide access to more students is a disservice – particularly if we resort to pedagogy that is known to be less effective.

I have to admit that the tone of the article was varied – not all was supporting the view that when you take the delivery of content out of Universities then the only thing left is research. There was also an emphasis on personalised learning benefits and the potential of new learning spaces and strategies that will be made available online over time.  The article ends with a quote by Prof Sally Kift, DVC(A), JCU:

… If the online or blended delivery can capture that social aspect of learning then that’s good as well. But that needs to be quite intentionally enabled. It will not happen by chance.

This brings some focus on understanding appropriate pedagogy for these spaces and the need for social learning, but – to me – without the appropriate emphasis or explanation. It smacks of the misunderstanding that social learning or social experiences in education are purely about building professional or soft skills, or in helping students form networks. It ignores our understanding that social learning is a crucial element in learning development itself.


2 thoughts on “Why would students want to come to class?

  1. Katrina, your quote towards the end about the capture of the social interaction is an important consideration. Personally and professionally, I think we need to find a model of education, at all levels, which delivers credible information and fosters the critical aspects of social interaction amongst students. I am not as convinced that is what the elite who run our educational institutions are interested.


  2. Hi Ivon – this is certainly a difficult issue, as many senior execs (I suspect) find it difficult to think about how we could provide the balance between social interaction requirements, and quality face to face teaching time, with the need to expand our teaching systems to provide a more open educational system. That is definitely one push towards MOOCs etc as they promise, in part, to deliver this – but they don’t, well, not yet anyway, so we really need to do a lot more work in this space before we can be comfortable that it is delivering what we need (as I discussed).

    You might be interested in some of the recent comments by our new VC here (http://www.adelaide.edu.au/news/news54721.html) where he talks about the importance of including small group work (one way of supporting social interaction) across all courses. What I found interesting with this discussion is the push towards blended learning – we may indeed have some large class sections that may be even traditional teaching styles (either online or face to face) but each course should also include opportunities for small group discussions and social learning.


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