PTAS Learning and Teaching Forum 2014

Toby Bailey – Director of Teaching, School of Mathematics, University of Edinburgh

I spent an instructive day last week at the 2014 PTAS Forum; I was expecting to hear about co-creation because everyone is talking about it, but I was surprised when the notorious comedian Roy “Chubby” Brown entered the discussion (more on that later). I am using the term “co-creation” to stand for a number of related ideas all involving students participating in designing or delivering their education and doing so with real power rather than simply being “consulted”. And of course not everyone is talking about it; just the academics who go to teaching events.

Raising the subject more widely with other academics raises some negative reactions. A few weeks ago, I described the idea of students’ being involved in designing their assessment to a colleague who confidently said “I am sure that cannot be what is meant”. But it is, you know. Mark Huxham from Edinburgh Napier University, a keynote speaker, described how students registered to take a course of his in the coming year together with some who had taken it the previous year redesigned it under his guidance over the Summer. They replaced the previous sit-down exam with a take-home; the critique of a lecturer-created pretend academic paper was replaced with one of a genuine published article and the weighting of this component increased to compensate for the increased difficulty.

This is or could be a revolutionary idea. The other keynote speaker, Cathy Bovill from the University of Glasgow, touched on its potential disruptiveness, and my interpretation is that the issue is around the “didactic contract”, the often implicit and sometimes unconscious assumptions that the teacher and the taught make about their roles in the process. A near universal ingredient of this in University teaching is that it is the teacher’s role to decide on the syllabus, delivery and assessment. The control of syllabus can possibly be justified on the grounds that the teacher probably has far more subject expertise and indeed Mark Huxham remarked that his students did not want to take decisions about the syllabus of his course. But on delivery and assessment, in general both students and staff are working from experience rather than from hard evidence and though the students may have less experience, what they do have is very fresh and pertinent and it may better reflect the realities for a typical student.

Many of us have tried to encourage students to “take responsibility for their own learning”. It’s not an easy sell and I wonder if the problem here is that we are trying to do it in a context where ultimately the power is entirely in the hands of us, the teachers. Students may not be entirely confident of the consequences; they may imagine it is just a manoeuvre to extract more work from them and that it has no guaranteed benefit – there is no point in running round and round your cage if you cannot in fact escape from it. Could it be that if students were genuinely and powerfully invested in the process of assessment that they would more readily appreciate the benefits of full engagement?

I like to teach these days via “interactive engagement” so that “lectures” become places where students think, discuss and receive feedback (mainly from each other) more than they listen to me. It involves an element of “letting go”, of thinking of your expertise as a teacher as being in asking good questions and guiding discussion rather than in dispensing knowledge and understanding. It seems to me that co-creation and its relatives take this idea to the next level, applying it to the processes of the course rather than just its content. Correspondingly, to do it we (the lecturer and the community of academics) will have to let go of the role of exclusive policy-making around our courses and replace it with one of facilitating a joint enterprise with the class – that we use our expertise to inform joint decision-making rather than to decide everything ourselves.

There is a challenge in all this also to Universities’ academic bureaucracy: If I want to change the mode of the examination or the proportion of Continuous Assessment in a course, I should start the best part of a year in advance and argue the change through teaching committees, Boards of Studies and so on. The idea that students might make such changes on the fly a couple of weeks before the course starts seems, if not unthinkable, then at least something that would require a great deal of pre-arranging and negotiation. Colleagues arriving here from institutions, usually abroad, where the tradition is less bureaucratic, have sometimes described our system to me as “infantilizing” academic staff and I understand their view. If students are going to be able to take charge of their education in real time, then we are going to have to reconsider both the complexity and time scale of the teaching approval and QA behemoths.

Roy “Chubby” Brown entered the discussion because he tells a lot of jokes in which he and his audience laugh at some group of “outsiders” – there is a clear separation between those who enjoy the joke and the objects of it. More gentle comedians encourage us to laugh together and to laugh at ourselves. Mark Huxham used this as an analogy: there is traditional “them and us” education where we keep the roles of teacher and learner very distinct but if one moves towards co-creation they become blurred and overlap. I hope that with these new ideas, the process of education will become more of a shared endeavour involving academics and students together.

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