This piece was originally published by The Australian in the Higher Education section on September 29, 2010. This is the original and unedited version containing more barbs, more poison and more risk.
My colleagues think I’m mad. One phoned to ask if I was ill. As I write this, Vice Chancellors are dialling HR to ensure I never teach at their institutions again. Differing viewpoints can do that to people.
My decision to support the creation of mylecturer.net.au, a site where tertiary students can rate their subjects, lecturers and higher-education experiences is not due to illness or creeping dementia. On balancing the pros and cons of such a site, it was clear that there were far more advantages for both students and institutions alike.
The student who first raised the concept had just come from an Internet Marketing lecture where she was read PowerPoint slides and given internet usage statistics from 2002. On asking for more current statistics, the lecturer answered curtly “If you can find them, I’ll show them”. She had driven for an hour to be read outdated information and be scolded for daring to question the information’s validity. Not good from one of Australia’s largest universities.
I know that most lecturers do a fantastic job in motivating their students to be the best they can be. Many use up-to-date teaching techniques, modern technology and possibly their own first-hand research to educate today’s savvy student.
Yet some are based in an old higher-education landscape that began eroding with the advent of the internet and is now nearly dust. This landscape placed the lecturer as the font of knowledge and on a platform that could never be questioned. The tertiary hierarchy of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s saw the student at the bottom of the pecking order with the marker of their essays, the grade-giving lecturer, at the very top.
The internet revolution means that current information on absolutely any topic is available to anyone with a computer. While we trudged to the Uni library in the 70’s to lug home three or four books, we now have thousands of topic specific books, articles and research papers available to us via online libraries throughout the world. The worthy lecturer now must be far more than a font of knowledge, they must be a master at giving meaning to this knowledge to a tech savvy, articulate and worldly student body.
And here is a major crunch. Today’s articulate, tech-savvy and worldly student is very different to the student of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. While the world and its information have changed, so has today’s student profile.
As a university student in the 70’s, the concept of ‘quality’ was unknown to me. Some lecturers were better than others, and some subjects more relevant, yet quality was not something I expected (nor was accustomed to). I was the first of my family to be tertiary educated. Simply to be in a lecture was a privilege.
Today’s students are different. Far from being a domestic cohort whose parents probably did NOT go to university, today’s students have parents who are probably tertiary educated. Due to our increasingly wealthy society, these students, and the parents who often pay their bills, understand and fully expect the concept of ‘quality’.
Australia’s fixation with quality has made us shun mediocrity in favour of the best. We have the best appliances, the best shoes, the best renovations and the best cars. Add to this the Gen Y belief that they can do no wrong (‘cause they’ve never been failed), and that they are all powerful (because they are soooo tech savvy), we have a highly expectant, bright, confident and resourceful student body who have possibly never been intellectually challenged in their entire lives.
Where water finds its level
Call me an old-fashioned idealist, but my belief influenced by 35 years of teaching is that modern students want to be challenged in ways us old folks never dreamed of. Intelligent people of any age know when they’ve been sold a dud. I know and you know when the restaurant meal we’ve just eaten has been over-marketed and undercooked.
The comments in many of the first mylecturer posts didn’t surprise me. “The assignments don’t reward hard work” or “The concepts are too simple”. “The assessments are neither challenging nor relevant to the learning outcomes” or “We should not be supposed to learn X which is not a world-recognised or industry used component.” These are not the posts of lazy students wanting to coast, but of intelligent people wanting to be challenged in ways they haven’t been challenged before.
The 3000 word essay is not a challenge for today’s student. It challenges their time management, it challenges their typing skills, but it doesn’t challenge their brain. The two-hour mass lecture is neither a challenge nor a delight for today’s student. Once again, it challenges their ability to do part-time work, but it doesn’t supply a learning experience that engages and inspires.
Today’s student needs today’s lecturers, individuals prepared to work with active learning and engaging projects, not the 3000 word essay. Today’s student need today’s universities, institutions prepared to employ new and possibly ‘risky’ learning experiences that push our worldly cohort into a bigger, more challenging world. Moreover, and dare I say it – today’s students, and Australia’s future, needs institutions that don’t dumb-down or qualify content or assessment criteria in order to attract full-fee paying, yet potentially unsuitable punters. Over-marketed and undercooked is not nourishing for anyone.
Mylecturer.net.au may not please everyone. It may however, help students find the educational challenges they want and most certainly deserve.
Phil Dye has taught at the University of Technology Sydney, the Think Education Group, The International College of Management Sydney, several high schools, several primary schools and one pre-school.