The demise of ALTC and why I’m not sad

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.

References

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.

6 thoughts on “The demise of ALTC and why I’m not sad

  1. colsim

    I’ll admit that I work in the VET sector but our cross-collaboration has shown that most universities already have at least one area dedicated to enhancing teaching and learning quality, if not several.

    Has the ALTC been duplicating, supporting or supplementing the work carried out in these teams?

    1. I think the ALTC aim would be to support/bring together what the universities are doing.

      While this has been done, I would suggest that it has been at the expense of increasing the gap between the interested L&T folk and those not. I think it’s common for all uni L&T centres to have “the usuals”. The folk that always participate. “The usuals” are a small percentage of the total academic population at a university. ALTC has been getting the “usuals” from all universities together, rather than helping reach the majority.

  2. cactus47

    Although it must be conceded that the ALTC is not as efficient or effective as it could have been (the way that teaching citations are determined, for instance, is nothing short of farcical), the same can be said about the ARC. How much money has been spent on the ERA process to date? And we are still far from consensus as to whether it is viable or not.

    The demise of the ALTC will affect the ‘unusuals’ in several ways, in many ways more than the ‘usuals’. Firstly, we are about to move into a period where student demand will drive our base funding. This means that senior management is about to get very interested in student satisfaction and retention rates. Poor quality teaching and learning practices will come under the direct scrutiny of those who decide on promotion and resource allocation. In a demand driven system, this is inevitable. The days of any academic with any teaching load neglecting their teaching or treating it as an unwelcome distraction from research are about to end. No matter what philosophical stance you want to take and whether we like it or not, teaching is now everyone’s business in higher education.

    The blunt instruments we use to measure teaching quality compound this problem. TEQSA and each institution are going to rely on inadequate and outdated measures of satisfaction etc. to determine the quality of teaching at the coalface. This data will be laid bare on the ‘My University’ website for all to see and will significantly impact institutional rankings. We no longer have a mechanism to work collaboratively towards better measures of student outcomes because that is one purpose of the ALTC, to drive this sort of innovation. This will mean that the unusuals will be forced to spend inordinate amounts of time ensuring that their students are happy, which will not only have a detrimental effect on the time they devote to research but will in no way guarantee that students will actually learn anything. The unusuals will also have no choice, if you can’t provide evidence that you are contributing in this area, don’t expect to be promoted. Either that or find yourself a nice research fellowship and keep your head comfortably buried in the sand.

    This shift in focus will inevitably force universities to look at ways to increase satisfaction and retention to maintain and increase base funding. Without the ALTC, each institution will be heading down this road in isolation, creating additional burden on resources and massive duplication of effort. These resources will be diverted from the internal research funding available to the unusuals because the bulk of the institution’s funding will be driven by student demand. The ALTC allows the development of strategies that can be implemented across the sector. Although the dissemination strategy was not as good as it could have been, we now have no strategy at all. Innovation will become the liability of each institution without the means or motivation to collaborate with what are essentially competing organisations.

    A further implication comes from the fact that there is one less research pot for all of us. Without being able to aim for ALTC funding for support, some high calibre researchers with international renown are going to be looking elsewhere to pay for their research and they will have institutional backing. This is going to squeeze a lot of ECRs in particular out of the running for internal and external funding. There are many well known learning and teaching researchers in Australia with extensive lists of high quality publications and track records of external funding. In a student demand driven higher education system, learning and teaching research is an easy sell to a government-funded grant scheme because the benefits are easily mapped to national priorities. There are going to be some big guns putting their hands in the NHMRC and ARC pots that need not have been previously.

    Ultimately, the rest of the academic community – the unusuals – have had more than sufficient opportunity to engage with learning and teaching innovation and the ALTC. As rightly pointed out, many have not and that is certain to be at their peril. Learning and teaching is everyone’s business and with student demand driven funding and the demise of the ALTC, the day of peril is fast approaching. Is it really worth it for $22m p/a when the government is trying to find $5b? We are all going to suffer because of this.

    1. I agree with much of what you’ve said. Is saving $22m worth it in the scheme of things? Probably not, but that was always a political decision probably driven by a combination of want to kill ALTC off anyway and also being seen to be cutting from a range of sources. It will be interesting to see if in the next couple of year’s if there is any Labour agenda for something to replace ALTC. Am wondering if the government is thinking that the compacts will be a way to fund and drive innovation in the direction they way.

      That said, however, I’m not convinced that demand driven funding will drive interest in good teaching. That was the point of the Tutty et al (2008) quote. Some universities are already in a demand driven situation and the focus has been on what gets students through, rather than on good teaching. Especially if the type of student you are getting is less capable and/or more pragmatic. Especially if the changes necessary for good teaching are seen as too problematic, or more importantly too expensive.

      There’s also the assumption that “good” teaching means “happy” students. There’s quite a bit of literature that students have certain expectations of a university education and that they get upset when those expectations aren’t met. There expectations usually consist of sitting in lecture theatres being talked at. As long as they are treated reasonably well, get feedback and know how to get the grade they want, they’ll be happy. Or at least happy enough.

      In addition, I’m a bit more cynical about senior management responses to demand driven funding. I predict there will be an increase in standardised delivery and courses. ALTC and TEQSA are already enabling a move toward this. But I’ve seen broader examples with Dean’s mandating minimal delivery mechanisms which become maximum delivery mechanisms.

      Time will tell. There’s probably a decent research proposal in predicting and observing what will happen. Wonder who would fund it?

  3. Pingback: Is there a need for research focii? « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

  4. Pingback: ALTC and Innovation | Mark Smithers

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