So the Australian Learning and Teaching Council has got the chop. There are a lot of folk upset about this and I can understand why. A lot of people invested a lot of time and energy into ALTC activities, some/many of which had good outcomes.
My problem is that I just can’t get to excited about it. I’m not convinced that ALTC had, or could ever have hoped to have had, a significant impact on the higher education sector within Australia. This is an attempt to document some of my reasons for this.
The champion of teaching and learning?
In the ALTC response to its closure, Dr Carol Nicoll (the CEO of the ALTC) is quoted as saying
We are the champion of teaching and learning in the higher education sector.
I think that’s a pretty good summary of my main concern about ALTC’s ability to have an impact.
The quote seems to suggest that without the ALTC, there won’t be a champion of teaching and learning within higher education. Even though teaching and learning is the primary product (in terms of income) to higher education institutions. It suggests that perhaps the higher education institutions aren’t exactly committing whole-heartedly to the task of acting as champions of teaching and learning. To such an extent that there is a need for an external body to take on the role.
The fact that there is a perceived need for an external body to take on this task is the reason why I believe that such an external body can never do have significant, wide-ranging impact. This is different from saying that it can’t do good things, it can and has. It is to suggest that it probably can’t have impact on the fundamental practice of teaching and learning within Australian universities.
Why aren’t universities champions of teaching and learning?
The assumption that universities should be the champions of good teaching and learning and teaching is based on the assumption that good teaching and learning is of primary importance to the university and it members. It is my argument that this is simply not the case. I argue that the institution and its members have very different priorities which mean good teaching and learning will never be of primary importance.
Making money is paramount for the university
Steven Schwartz has a recent article in the Times Higher Education supplement that touches somewhat on this purpose. Over recent years the amount of funding from the Australian government has drastically reduced and universities have rushed to identify alternate forms of funding. If they don’t they are in trouble. Next year will see the introduction of demand driven funding which means
Institutions would receive government funding only if they attracted students.
Update: Another article by Steven Schwartz makes this point more strongly. This quote in particular
While many factors contributed to today’s problems, a key one is that educational providers sought international students as way to bolster their bottom line. They forgot their core mission to educate individuals; instead they saw them as dollar signs.
I’ve seen first hand the compromises that happen when what is needed for good quality teaching and learning bangs up against commercial imperatives. What is known about good teaching and learning is sacrificed at the altar of commercial concerns. Here’s a related example from Tutty et al (2008)
The solution to the high failure rate was to change the assessment to satisfy the institutional requirements of satisfied students and reasonable pass rates rather than explore an alternative learning and teaching approach – an effective solution in the current higher education environment that encourages the academic to prioritise other areas, such as research…………current institutional policies, including teaching and learning quality measures and lack of resources, are compromising the way subjects are delivered. In some cases academics are discouraged from improving their teaching practice
Research is paramount for many academics
This almost goes without saying. An excerpt from my thesis, or at least from one of the drafts
Academic interest and focus on teaching is further impacted by exposure to ambiguous, even contradictory, role expectations. Academics are expected to engage equally in research and teaching and yet work towards promotion criteria that primarily value achievements in research (Zellweger 2005). There is no question that funded research and publication of results in scholarly journals is the dominant criteria in universities world-wide and this is, at least a contributing, if not causal factor in this limitations of university learning and teaching (Knapper 2003). While a review of promotion criteria and weightings from UK universities found widespread adoption of formal parity between teaching and research for mid-range academics, it found that promotion to senior ranks were based almost exclusively on research excellence and did not allow applications based on teaching activities (Parker 2008). Fairweather (2005) found that spending more time teaching in the classroom remains a negative influence on academic pay and that the trend is worsening most rapidly in institutions whose central missions focuses on teaching.
I’ve had numerous interactions with senior academics at really good universities. Their consistent message is that you do a good enough job at teaching and get on with the research.
Getting the next contract is paramount for many other academics
According to one report
At 67,000, casual academics vastly outnumber other academic staff at Australia’s universities, accounting for 60 per cent of the total.
Casual academics aren’t in a position to be undertaking the sort of reflective and time-consuming process required to improve teaching and learning. They are focused on doing a complex job for which they are being underpaid. At the same time they are probably trying to make sure that they get another contract. And you don’t get another contract by pointing out the flaws in the quality of teaching and learning at the institution employing you. You certainly don’t do it by pointing out these flaws to the professor who is most likely your supervisor and is mostly focused on research (see previous section).
Getting the next contract is paramount for senior managers
Almost without exception all senior leaders in Australian universities are on 5 year contracts. Their focus is generally on being seen to achieve short-term wins with high levels of visibility that encourage and enable them to get the next 5 year contract. Hopefully one that entails a promotion either internally or to a better university. I am sure that many of these folk try their hardest to make a difference, however, the reality is there will always be some level of focusing on demonstrable wins. A symptom of this is the comment I heard often, “We have to focus our limited time/resources on the problems we can do something about.”
Such a system is not conducive to engaging in the hard yards to address systematic issues limiting the quality of teaching and learning. Generally it entails organisational restructures (how many times has the L&T support unit at your university been restructured in the last 10 years?), restructuring of degrees/programs or the development of new sexy programs (e.g. at the moment it would probably be “allied health” programs).
Limits of an external body
Since the primary aims of most institutions isn’t exactly aligned with good teaching and learning the efforts of an external body like ALTC are always going to be limited. They will be limited to people who are inherently interested in learning and teaching. This usually means managers or staff who are employed in roles associated specifically with teaching and learning. It also includes the small percentage of academics interested in L&T.
As argued by Moore (2002) and Geoghegan (1994) these people are not the same as – what I think is the majority of folk at a university – those who aren’t directly interested. This difference creates a chasm which inherently limits the ability to spread the ideas generated by the interested folk to the uninterested folk. Even if adoption is apparently achieved I would propose that in many situations the best that can be hoped for is task corruption.
This reminds me of a recent comment of a colleague
when I studied the Instructional Design course at U Manitoba, my professor said that there is no point pushing a constructivist learning design onto a subject matter expert who has been teaching for 30 years with a behaviourist approach.
The significant difference between those interested in ALTC-like activities and those not, is such that it often becomes like an attempt to push a constructivist learning design on a behaviourist. i.e. destined to less than entirely successful.
For these and other reasons I don’t think an external body like ALTC can ever make a significant difference, unless the the context of Australian higher education is changed, good teaching and learning will remain less than a priority. Oh sure, the espoused position of institutions, their strategic plans and the public statements of senior managers will talk the good talk. But if you look really closely, they won’t be walking the walk.
This is the experience described in the Tutty et al (2008) quote above and an experience I’ve seen first (and second) hand again and again. When faced with a problem that arises because of a problem in teaching and learning (e.g. low failure rates due to significant change in student cohort) it is not the “good” teaching and learning solution that is adopted (e.g. radically change the pedagogy to one better suited to the changed cohort), but rather the simpler, more pragmatic solution (e.g. re-write the exam, or perhaps re-mark the exam).
ALTC did some good work. But there were also some real problems, but that will happen in anything this size dealing with something as complex as university teaching and learning. My problem is that I don’t think it would ever have been an effective champion of teaching and learning within higher education. At least not in terms of changing the priorities associated with teaching and learning for a majority of institutions or their staff.
It could be argued that something like ATLC may be better than nothing, but then perhaps rather than expend effort trying to save something like ALTC, it might be better to expend that effort changing the fundamental problems.
Fairweather, J. (2005). Beyond the rhetoric: Trends in the relative value of teaching and research in faculty salaries. Journal of Higher Education, 76(4), 401-422.
Geoghegan, W. (1994). Whatever happened to instructional technology? Paper presented at the 22nd Annual Conferences of the International Business Schools Computing Association, Baltimore, MD.
Knapper, C. (2003). Three decades of educational development. International Journal for Academic Development, 8(1-2), 5-9.
Moore, G. A. (2002). Crossing the Chasm (Revised ed.). New York: Harper Collins.
Parker, J. (2008). Comparing research and teaching in university promotion criteria. Higher Education Quarterly, 62(3), 237-251.
Tutty, J., Sheard, J., & Avram, C. (2008). Teaching in the current higher education environment: perceptions of IT academics. Computer Science Education, 18(3), 171-185.
Zellweger, F. (2005). Strategic Management of Educational Technology: The Importance of Leadership and Management. Paper presented at the 27th Annual EAIR Forum.