Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Freedom to Learn

I was chatting to my daughter late last night on Skype: she is in her first year at University and everything is new, exciting and confusing.

Not least her first experiences of lectures: 400 coughing and sneezing 18 year olds in a lecture theatre, rapid fire powerpoint, notice of regular tests, a 50 page book to read by next week - all around her people taking down notes. There was even a prize given away for the student who could remember and quote back at the lecturer an obscure author she had mentioned at the start....

As an added incentive to attend the lecture, students were informed that they could not have access to the lecture notes or slides until later that day, and only then if they answered some questions to check they had been paying attention and taking notes.

My daughter has done well to get to where she is, being midly dyslexic, with specific difficulties in reading and comprehending that were confirmed in a test the University carried out last week. Taking notes whilst listening is not something she can manage easily - in fact it would help her understanding of what is being said if she could have copies of the slides in front of her to make notes on as she goes along.

Being new to Blackboard it wasn't easily apparent to her where she could access the tests she had to take in order to access the slides .... on top of all the confusion and disorientation she was already feeling in a new environment, her own learning difficulties were adding to the problem. She was sad and disappointed. I just feel angry.

On the positive side, she has got support from the University for her dyslexia, she is in a small seminar/workshop group where she can talk about the course in a slower and more considered way, there are some good learning materials available on Blackboard and in her text books, and there is a drop- in session available to those who want further explanation of some of the points covered in the lecture - so in her own time and in her own way, hopefully, she can begin to learn what she needs.

My point is - what is the point of lectures? I don't think it is only students with some form of learning difficulty who need support, small group work, handouts before the session, clear signposting on how to use the VLE.

When I first saw Mike Wesch's "Vision of Student's Today" I thought it was reflecting an archaic, peculiarly American phenomenon - I have obviously been teaching at PG level for too long....I'm with Wes Streeting on this!! Let's abolish lectures and encourage personalised learning.


  1. I believe in appraising individaul needs which is very difficult in a classroom of 400! Surely insititutions need to be made more aware of this and also the benefits that small group teaching affords to their students and how much better the end product will be ie the Graduates of the future. However, in saying this there has to be some leeway for the few who 'need' the didactic method of teaching or do they. Perhaps we need to reeducate these individuals into realising and adopting the benefits of self directed learning. Tutors and lecturers etc would have to be retrained too.
    Hope your daughter overcomes these obstacles and flourishes.

  2. I love the thought of re-educating academics even though it has slightly Maoist overtones...
    thanks for the ocmment Annibale :0)
    Ps can you see now how I love our group of 8?

  3. I thought the purpose of large-size lecture halls was to generate a profit to support upper graduate work where class sizes are smaller.I'm not saying that's the best model to use for education but if all classes had groups of eight then each student would need to support 1/8 of a professor.

    Anyway you look at it class size has to be a function of resources available. Everything is a trade-off. Reduced class size may be the answer for dyslexics but if having reduced class size raises the tuition, at some point it must impact those without the ability to pay.

    I'm glad I'm not making the decision between subsidizing the poor or the dyslexic .

  4. I am not arguing for class sizes of 8 at all times! I can see that large lectures are unavoidable at times but why not just make lecture notes available or provide recordings for students to review at their leisure? - not particularly difficult or expensive things to do

  5. There are much better incentives than making students jump through hoops to attend large lectures... Phil Race (amongst others) has published lots of ideas. It's good to hear your daughter is being provided with extra support, but instead of extra smaller classes, what about making existing classes more inclusive? Surely that would help reduce the strain on resources?

  6. Yes I agree Lucy - I really think that inclusivity is the key. This whole episode has made me think more about how I need to tackle that in my teaching/facilitating.....

  7. I teach architecture and visual design and I've found that Prezi can't handle hi res images, which I think is a must when working in a zoom interface where you're supposed to zoom into the content. My conclusion is that Prezi is great for text but for visual content Ahead is so much better.

  8. Sorry, wrong blog post I added this comment to