A quiet revolution in teaching

At a time of some debate about the quality of university education, RMIT vice-chancellor Margaret Gardner says there has been a ‘quiet revolution’ in university teaching which has seen a steady but significant improvement since the mid-1990s.

Professor Margaret GardnerThere has been much recent comment about the quality of university education and it is a topic worthy of more debate.  As we debate, we should recognise that a quiet revolution has occurred in Australian universities beneath the publicity about MOOCS and world rankings.

This revolution is seen in the steady but significant improvement in university teaching since the mid-1990s.

There have been improvements in various measures, ranging from the satisfaction of graduates with their teaching to the percentage of students retained in in university education.

Each year’s increase in graduates’ satisfaction with their teaching has been modest… but over two decades the improvement has been big enough to indicate a transformation in university teaching.

From 2005, the Australian government introduced a new student number that allows it to count as ‘retained in higher education’ students who enroll in another institution.  Once this adjustment is made, there is a marked increase in the retention rate from 84.6 (%?) in 2005 to 86.9 (%?) in 2011.  University teaching has improved despite variable, but overall flat, base real funding per student and steadilyincreasingly student-staff ratios since 1990, from under 15 students per academic for much of the 1990s to more than 20:1 in 2009.

This improvement has occurred even though there has not been substantial performance funding   to boost teaching, nor does teaching earn the reputational rewards that university rankings give to research.

The steady improvement in university teaching in Australia is due to a mutual reinforcing combination of several factor.

The first, and most important, is academics’ commitment to their discipline and their students.

Academics make considerable investment in, and sacrifice for, their careers for several reasons, but high among many is their love of their discipline and their wish to advance it among students and other scholars.

Whatever grumbles  are made about students from time to time, as other professionals moan about their clients, overwhelmingly academics  want their students to do well and are committed to contributing to that by improving their teaching.

A second important factor has been robust measures of the quality of courses and teaching, and their deployment throughout universities in a way that supports teaching improvement.

This started with Paul Ramsden’s development of the national course experience questionnaire in the early 1990s…The widespread university use of CEQuery, developed by Geoff Scott, to help educators analyse graduates’ comments in student surveys (and explain the reasons behind their ratings) has built on this base.

Each university has adopted similar surveys of their students’ satisfaction with their subjects and teaching, and these are examined at least annually by the academics themselves as well as by the heads of their programs, departments or schools.

A third crucial factor improving Australian universities’ teaching has been the contribution of the Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT).  The OLT is the direct successor of the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (2008-2011), and was previously known as the Carrick Institute, formed in 2004.  The OLT’s grants for academics and professional staff to investigate, develop and implement innovations in learning and teaching are assessed by peers and accorded the same status as peer evaluated research grants, greatly enhancing the standing of scholarship and innovation.

The office’s prestigious fellowships support leading educators to make institution or sector-wide improvements fellowships support leading educators to make institution or sector-wide improvements in teaching.  There is now a significant network of current and former fellows who provide continuing advice and support on teaching excellence across higher education in Australia and beyond.

The OLT continues the longstanding awards for outstanding contributions to student learning and for teaching excellence. These high-profile celebrations of achievements reward and encourage leadership min improving teaching and learning.  The reports, including good practice reports, on the office’s website, are valuable resources.

These factors have resulted in several improvements in universities’ learning and teaching.  Many disciplines now have significant resources to draw on to improve educational standards and teaching from engineering to accounting to clinical practice.  These builds on longstanding attention to the first-year experience, work-integrated learning and the incorporation of graduate attributes into learning outcomes, all of which improve students’ learning and their experience.   These communities of academics committed to building academic integrity, improving English language and cultural competencies.

In recent times the blending of online technologies with on-campus study, called hybrid teaching, and learning in the US (where it seems less widespread), has been a major focus. Other new technologies

Have also been incorporated into traditional teaching and learning such as online submission of assignments, originality checks, marking rubrics and embedded voice and text comments that align assessment and feedback with the syllabus and learning goals.

There is, to my knowledge, no Australian university without a learning management system that holds online materials and supports online interaction with students.

Together online technologies enable learning analytics that universities use to identify early – and precisely what – promotes learning for students.

None of these changes has disrupted universities but collectively the sophistication in understanding teaching and learning has increased and outcomes have improved.  And while we don’t yet measure learning and teaching internationally in rankings as we do research, if we did we might well be surprised at the quality of the learning experience Australian universities provide their students.

The revolution may be quiet but it is profound.

 This article by RMIT vice-chancellor Margaret Garner  was first published in the Australian Financial Review   Monday 28 October 2013.
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