In the second week of the new summer course, we spent the day together in class. Because summer in Australia is already snapped in two by Christmas, a whole lot of other weirdness can go on while no one’s looking, so we’re flipping the normal timetable and going with two all-day workshops supported by online reflections and activities.
Thanks to Steve Wheeler, I’ve also discovered that we’re also haphazardly and instinctively following a primer on the 10 characteristics of authentic learning. I’ve always been irritated by advocates of authentic learning, because there’s such a moralising inference in the label. Nevertheless, the principles listed here make sense to most educators, especially in their valuing of collaboration and reflection. So why don’t we follow them? Is it because we’re wilfully refusing to recognise the world that students will work in? No: we work in this world ourselves. Is it because we’re intent on reproducing ourselves as discipline acolytes? Again, no.
It’s because the structural habits of a university system, encoded in resource management practices (seriously, people with clipboards checking that we’re using all the rooms all the time), are stacked against us achieving the kind of flexible, purposeful practices that characterise quite a bit of professional life, where we do mostly try to deploy time in a way that will achieve the goals we’ve set for ourselves.
But when considering how best to teach, universities typically do it the other way around, designing goals to fit the time that’s been allocated to the task. In a neat move, we’ve also decided that “quality outcomes” (which sound so much nicer than standardised goals for everyone) are best guaranteed by allocating the same seat time in the same way to everything we do. It’s at the core of our standard contract with students, both domestically and internationally: we’re systemically inauthentic.
And this is why we treat the weekly class as an institutional fetish without which we can’t function, along with the term paper, the exam, and the mandatory course readings that no one reads.
So in the spirit of Vin Jones’ Business Practices that Refuse to Die anti email manifesto, I’m declaring my opposition to weekly classes. The weekly lecture is a particularly tired habit we need to rethink, even as MOOCs are busy turning them into bad television. And we need to put a stop to the cheerleading idea that we should fix this individually by becoming more entertaining. Newsflash: I don’t think we’re the problem. The issue is that we’re structurally discouraged from asking when and why a lecture is the best fit for purpose, and penalised if we reserve them for special occasions, or choose not to use them at all.
There is no other practice that we take seriously in universities where we say that getting large groups together for one hour a week is the best way to make significant progress on complex material. But we do this with teaching, and in the standard lecture-tutorial model, we do it in two separate bits on different days, each bit requiring a 150% markup in travel time cost. This is bad for learning, and in commuter universities, it’s bad for the planet.
For every student who attends class on two separate days each week, travelling an hour each way, we have created about 50 hours of travel time over the semester. Multiply this individual cost burden by the number of students in a large class, and you start to see a tiny little carbon footprint appear. Now multiply this by an entire university system behaving thoughtlessly because it has never had to calculate the environmental impact of this wearisome habit.
(American and European readers might be puzzled here, but the majority of Australian students continue to live at home, and even though they may attend a nominally local university, the reality of Australian geography is that a 60-90 minute commute each way is common. Astonishingly, we trundle on as though none of this matters environmentally, although we’re terrifically proud of our campus waste recycling initiatives. Go figure.)
So there are environmental reasons to jailbreak the weekly timetable, but there’s also a strong pedagogical case, to do with the time we’re asking students to give each other. What’s the message we send about the value of collaborative learning when we allocate it in these rushed servings of fast-food time? What part of professional life are we authentically preparing them for? Committee meetings?
Students are evidently unconvinced that showing up to listen to something they could read online, or pause and replay in recorded form, is worth the rising cost of petrol, or the missed shift at work. But the generation that have grown up online are starting to express reservations about more time in front of computer screens. These are the most experienced online users we have ever taught, and they’re telling us that sometimes it feels as though time lost online is a practice of addiction. They do value presence and time together, providing that time is well spent and that they can actively engage with one another, not just listen.
We need to hear this, even as we get excited about MOOCs and the rest, and we need to listen carefully to our own doubts, buried under heaps of composting email.
By coming together this week, for a long and intensive day of thinking and sharing, students in this class gave their irreplaceable time to each other, and to me. I learned a lot, and I hope they did too. They’ve also helped me think about the way our systems are set up to take this astonishing gift for granted. As ever, there are good business reasons why we do bad things, and traditional habits that we’re clinging to, and we have hardwired policy standards for degrees (and visa restrictions for international students) that we can’t just throw in the bin.
But if we want to achieve change in universities, let’s not just talk about catapulting stuff online in sparkly ways: let’s also figure out how to use well the time that we give to each other when we do make the effort to be together in the same room.
And I’m not sure the weekly class is it.