Tertiary education in transition
Sven Åke Bjørke, Ghislain Maurice N. Isabwe, Aleksandra Lazareva, Harriet Nabushawo and Joseph Watuleke
From teacher-centered to learning and learning-centered education
Higher educational institutions are changing. The traditional, fixed curriculum combined with lectures are no longer sufficient. The information age imposes new ways also at universities. Teacher-centered delivery of necessity becomes more learner- and learning centered. Computer supported learning, mobile learning, life-long learning, blended learning, problem-based collaborative learning penetrate tertiary levels of education. This is to some extent incompatible with the traditional remuneration system for university teachers, in which they basically are paid for lecturing. Many universities furthermore give credit points in accordance with number of pages to read in a fixed curriculum and an all-decisive summative end of term exam. This system is gradually becoming obsolete with increasingly learning-centered modes. Remuneration of university teachers and credit systems must adapt to the new realities of the information age. If not, teachers adopting modern forms of education risk more work but less pay, and will resist modernisation and reforms.
From dissemination of knowledge to construction of knowledge
Mainstream pedagogy the last generations has seen a clear transition from a mainly instructivist “dissemination of knowledge” with its roots in behaviourism, over to more student active constructivist forms of education.
The picture of the strict teacher with an ominous cane in the corner and quiet, note-taking children has been partly replaced with discussions, group work, projects and learning by doing.
Constructivism is also slowly penetrating the tertiary levels, with students studying collaboratively, and occasionally obtaining their grades via group work. With the introduction of internet even in the remotest places, tertiary level studies increasingly become accessible anywhere at any time. Students in Uganda can take degrees online in the USA or Japan without leaving their home. Is this new digital reality a challenge? Can all universities around the world compete for the best brains in their own countries, not to speak about globally? Will they face up to this challenge or risk becoming obsolete?
Challenges in tertiary education transition
Many university teachers perceive their main activity as doing research and publish articles. It is their number of publications they are rewarded for, not their quality in teaching. At several universities, the teachers are paid per the number of lectures they give, i.e. their time for preparation, “contact hours” and at times grading student hand-ins connected to the lectures. The teacher gives his double-hour lecture, the students sit in the auditorium, receive the information and maybe take their notes. The teacher decides the curriculum, the exam and what is disseminated in the lectures. This is a teacher-centered delivery of education. The system takes for granted that the students learn by listening to lectures.
The system has worked for a thousand years, so why change it? One problem with this system is that the world has changed. Only a generation ago, a university education was for the very few. Even in the USA and Europe, a university education two generations ago was the exclusive arena for the more successful part of the small minority making it through secondary school. University education is no longer for a small academically gifted elite, but a possibility for the many.
The academically gifted elite would in most cases learn to pass the necessary exams, whether the education delivered was of good quality or not. In many countries half or more of the young population now proceeds to tertiary education. A system receiving the many, but mainly built for an academic elite, will face challenges. High drop-out rates and often weak outcomes indicate that learning by some is perceived as a burden. Should not learning be a pleasure? Should not education be a platform for change – for the better?
Education for change or education for status quo?
The world changes rapidly, and we must adapt whether we want to or not. Does the tertiary education system change accordingly? The answer is: probably not, or rather reluctantly. Traditional teaching is mainly static: a teacher transmits «knowledge» – from someone who knows to those who don’t; «filling empty vessels». This does not prepare for change but rather for passive acceptance.
In the transmission mode of education, knowledge tends to be perceived as «given» and objective. The learning is mainly individual with competition for the best grades. The studies tend to be strategic and exam-focused with speculations about “what’s for the exam”. Performance seems more important than learning, mastery and competence. The pedagogical approach can be described as CCR: Copy, Cram and Reproduce. Focus is on the exam or the one correct answer. In some cases, students who experiment with alternative explanations or answers are ridiculed or even punished. A problem with this system is that a final, summative exam assesses a student’s ability to pass exams, not necessarily the actual competence. Many students tend to study mainly for the exams in a somewhat artificial academic environment, less for gaining actual competence and ability to solve problems in real life.
Learner and Learning centered delivery of education
According to some research, a learning centered more than teacher centered approach might be better, if deeper understanding, critical thinking, self-management, collaborative skills and creativity are desired outcomes. “It is what the teacher gets the students to do in the class that emerged as the strongest component of the accomplished teacher’s repertoire, rather than what the teacher, specifically, does” (Hattie, 2009, p.35). “It is not the knowledge or ideas, but the learner’s construction of knowledge and ideas that is critical”…”So often learners become passive recipients of teachers’ lessons…but the aim is to make students active in the learning process – through actions by the teachers and others – until the students reach the stage where they become their own teachers” (Hattie, 2009, p.37).
If students need to learn and use strategies such as summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting, one-way lecturing might not be the most appropriate. Dialogue where students take turns to bring meaning to the written word, with assistance to learn to monitor their own learning and thinking, might be more efficient (Bjorke, 2016 a).
Collaborative learning implies two or more students working together to build shared knowledge of phenomena and find solutions to given problems. Collaborative learning is underpinned by the social constructivist learning theory advanced by Vygotsky (1978) who argues that a persons’ learning may be enhanced with engagement with others. When students interact with each other, they get a deeper understanding of new and complicated concepts as they share their own perspectives and experiences and negotiate the meaning together. They must develop arguments to support their claims and reach consensus with peers.
Yet, students without previous experiences in collaborative learning tend to have challenges when first engaging in collaborative knowledge construction.
In fact, effective collaboration and argumentation skills are something that needs to be learned and practiced. Therefore, the role of the instructor is crucial in supporting the students especially in the initial stages of the collaborative learning process.
The main task of the instructor is no longer to provide the «ready knowledge». Instead, the instructor is the one continuously monitoring student discussions in order to ensure they stay on the right track. The instructor provides prompting questions and hints to students to draw their attention to crucial aspects of the learning material to be mastered, and encourages effective collaborative interactions such as questioning, criticizing, and elaborating. The amount of scaffolding is gradually reduced as students develop collaboration skills and strategies and can take more control of their learning processes.
Experienced students engage in the processes of the so-called “peer tutoring” where they can scaffold each other in the process of developing arguments and supporting their claims. Such educational experiences that are active, social, contextual, engaging, and student-owned lead to deeper learning and development of higher-level thinking (Jonassen, 1991).
The proliferation of ICT in teaching and learning has created new possibilities for students to collaborate in the online setting, both synchronously and asynchronously. Students from all over the world have the opportunity to access the learning resources provided by the online course instructor, work in small groups and engage in the processes of negotiation, argumentation, and explanation.
The teacher is paid for lecturing
One problem that we quickly run into if we want to adapt our university to these new realities, is remuneration of the teachers. As a rule, teachers are not paid for making high quality courses, adapt to computer-supported learning, develop student support systems and building good learning environments. They are paid for their lectures. The payment is usually the same, whether these lectures are up to date or ten years old, whether they are delivered as glittering “infotainment” or sleep-inducing hours of monotonous reading from a manuscript. Accompanied by crammed power point slides or overhead plastics.
Special challenges in Uganda
A public servant in Uganda is supposed to work from 8:00 hours to 17:00 hours and that applies to university lecturers. Universities in Uganda however, run evening programs where a lecturer is expected to teach evening students from 17:00 hours to 22:00 hours on top of the day programs. This is meant to be attractive by extra compensation pay. Failure to pay such extra allowances however, have entailed sit down strikes and disruptions of evening lectures, thus becoming a disincentive for lecturers with negative impacts on the quality of the learning process. Where part-time lecturers are used in units with fewer full-time staff, they are supposed to be paid per hour. Failure to pay them often results in the lecturers being absent from duty, withholding of student grades and at times non-assessment of students.
Teacher centered delivery: The teachers at tertiary levels are mainly paid for preparing and giving lectures. Approval of new courses are as a rule of thumb based on the formal competence of the lecturer and the “dish” of content in the course curriculum. There are few if any incentives for working on cognitive processes and learning activities on the receiving side: the students. A problem with this is that the teacher is the active person, while the students are too often passive recipients. Focus often is on passing the exam rather than gaining real competence.
If the university wants to improve on the quality of education delivered, more attention must be given to the pedagogical (or andragogical) training of the teachers, student support systems, student learning activities and the development of appropriate learning environments – on campus, blended and online. Training the teachers in giving good lectures, is still important. But it can no longer be the one crucial factor for quality education. The information age demands more. Students with a master’s degree or a PhD, are expected to be creative; efficient communicators; managers; critical searchers, assessors and users of relevant, reliable, updated and valid information. Moreover, they are expected to be independent as well as efficient team workers and collaborators. These are skills that require practical training and experience, not lectures.
Tertiary education needs a revision of remuneration and incentive systems. The teachers must still be paid for their lectures. In addition, they must be paid for learning centered course development and course instruction; creation of learning resources; detailed, modularized study guides; management and tutoring and the number of credit points delivered. There must be incentives for improving the quality of study guides, learning resources, learning outcomes, tutoring and student retention.
A second obstacle to a smooth transition from teaching-centered to learning centered education at tertiary levels, is the credit system. Traditionally, credit points are awarded according to the number of pages to study in a fixed curriculum accompanied by a number of lectures. Decisive is to pass the exam. The exam is a separate entity, and not part of the learning process as such. The exam is strictly summative, and offers no formative feedback other than a grade.
Universities in Uganda as a rule will not give a student feedback on the final examination other than the grade. The marked examination script remains confidential from the student unless a complaint is raised that requires remarking or verification of the grade. Consequently, cases of awarding grades without reading through the students’ work have been noted in the past. A lot of attention is given to examination at both undergraduate and post graduate levels. For example, take home assignments and tests may carry 30 percent of the final grade at undergraduate and 40 percent at postgraduate, leaving sit down examination with 70 percent and 60 percent at undergraduate and postgraduate respectively.
If the university plans to reduce the focus on cramming and reproducing information and rather emphasize deeper understanding, insight and practical application of knowledge, there is probably a need for additional assessment forms than the one summative exam. If we want more focus on learning, relearning, learning processes and reifications of these processes, we should probably consider course modularization with formative-summative assessments following the modules. There should be more assessment of competence, less assessment of reproducing ability.
The case of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS)
The European Union tries to transform tertiary education from teaching-centered to learning-centered through the Bologna process, and is probably the biggest experiment of its kind in the world. Universities are conservative entities, and this transition obviously takes some time. The lessons learned from the Bologna process may be of interest to countries also outside Europe.
Central in the European Credit Transfer and accumulation System (ECTS), is the student working hour. Credits are calculated according to the number of hours a thought average student would need to accomplish the learning task. Listening to a lecture, reading an article, search for information, discuss with peers are all study and learning activities. The traditional “contact hour” has no special ranking, but is just another study activity. The ‘estimated student workload hour unit’, is not an exact unit, but nevertheless a crucial concept in the ECTS. 25-30 student work hours correspond to 1 credit in the ECTS. To calculate credits, focus is on student work, not on the traditional delivery of lectures or the number of literature pages to be studied.
ECTS credits are based on the workload students need to achieve expected learning outcomes. Learning outcomes describe what a learner is expected to know, understand and be able to do after successful completion of a process of learning. Workload indicates the time students typically need to complete all learning activities (such as lectures seminars, projects, practical work, self-study and examinations) required to achieve the expected learning outcomes (EC, 2015)
This means that the course development tends to become modularised and learner-centered rather than teacher-centered. Courses can give 5; 7.5; 10; 15 or 30 ECTS credits, with 30 credits corresponding to a full-time semester course, while e.g. 10 credits correspond to 250-300 student work hours or a third of a semester. A full time student should expect to put in between 820 and 900 hours of study activities during one semester, roughly corresponding to the time she would have to spend in a full time job.
Online education a driving force for quality?
Online education can facilitate internationalization of the curriculum, cooperation between universities anywhere, development of joint study programs, increase number of curriculum subjects and ensure recognition of competence.
Quality assurance includes finding incentives for making education better, more learner and learning focused, train teachers in pedagogy, didactics and how to develop good learning environments. Good learning environments give social and collaborative experiences as well as access to appropriate online tools. Grading and assessment forms must always be up for questioning. Quality assurance is about continuously improving teacher and student support systems (Bjorke, 2016).
Online education and quality assurance
Good online education can improve learning environments. When teachers venture into e-learning, they are compelled to rethink their teaching methods and pedagogical approaches. The virtual classroom is not intuitive. Teachers who think so, will quickly wake up to students disappearing from their course in droves, and to very negative evaluations.
Teachers and course developers must keep up by building teams making learning communities of practice to increase understanding and prevent dropouts.
Online education and platforms
Most educational institutions trying to improve their quality of education, find that they need a learning platform – a Learning Management System (LMS). A common mistake is to regard the LMS as just a question of technology. However, most LMSs are complex and highly advanced systems for various kinds and levels of interaction and management. When choosing an LMS, several factors must be considered. Are the tools for student-student, tutor-student interaction, student activity and collaborative learning present? The teachers need easy and intuitive interfaces for building courses and running them. In many cases, the teachers need to form teams and work together to build a virtual learning environment of the quality they want.
A good learning environment demands tools for efficient formative and summative assessments as well as intuitive tools for peer assessment. A good LMS offers systems for student support. Last but not least, the LMS should provide tools for efficient administration; statistics on student activity and tools for identification.
Online student support and mobile teaching
A transition from campus to online support
The notion of student support and its role in higher education deserves a deep reflection as universities transition from mainly campus based education, to more blended learning, student centred education. Bartam (2009) revisited the meaning of student support, from a humanistic interpretation, an instrumental approach and a therapeutic point of view. The humanistic understanding places student support at the core of education. Provision of support stems from the need to offer academic guidance, in such a way that tutors play a pastoral role, nurturing, and assisting learners to achieve their full potential. However, given the increasing numbers of students, it can be challenging to provide this kind of support particularly at an individual level, or small groups in some cases. Student support can also be seen as an obligation for the institution of higher learning, an instrument to address students´ learning and other educational challenges. This approach may affect the quality and meaning of student support. It is more geared towards fulfilling certain quality assurance requirements rather than a genuine relationship between the mentor and the mentee for the latter´s personal growth. Further on, the author (Bartam, 2009) indicates certain forms of student support that are in principle crafted to address students´ weaknesses as if they were some sort of a vulnerability. The underlying assumption that students might be victims needing help in their education, overemphasises a teacher-centered pedagogy, in which the level of support might exceed what is acceptable and appropriate for higher education. This varying interpretation of what means “student support” calls for new thinking for shaping the support beyond traditional campus based education, particularly online.
Supporting students in online environments requires flexibility and availability beyond the routine 9AM to 5PM working day. It is indeed more common nowadays for students to seek support and clarifications on learning tasks whenever the need arises. Students do not necessarily have to wait for that slot of the day for a scheduled meeting with a teacher. However, some teachers and universities may still see their teaching as the time spent either in lecturing or physically meeting students (the so called “Contact hours”). The teaching community now realise that students are learning throughout the day and possibly during the night too. It can be argued that a good support is the one provided in right time. The question is how and why should teachers accept to provide an “anywhere” “anytime” support to students? Further on, one may ask what would be the alternative(s)?
In this Internet era, much learning content can be searched for and obtained online. Consequently, the relevancy of teachers as just a source of information is likely to keep decreasing. Teachers are expected to provide better quality, timely and personalised information to their students. There are community forums for different areas of study where students can potentially get answers to their questions. Most of those forums are run by volunteers, who may not necessarily be authorities in the field, neither have contextual information about the course let alone a particular student. Teachers of online courses should be aware that students do not have much options but those forums in case the teachers do not timely address students ‘queries.
Students are getting more familiar with using online media, be it for social activities or other application scenarios. They expect to maintain a relatively high level of interactivity in social online environments as well as learning environments. In the latter case, the interaction should definitely involve some teaching personnel, as it was agued (Turbill, 2015) that “the teacher needs to be a participant in and facilitator of students´ learning”. Turbill (2015) suggests four structures which should be involved in an effective online interaction:
- Knowledge building
- Management and organisation
- Personal contextualisation
- Professional contextualisation
Mobile teaching concepts
Given that many students in higher education have access to mobile devices, it is natural for them to adopt mobile learning. Mobile learning affords them with mobility and flexibility in co-creation of knowledge. Students are able to access learning content, create new content and share content with others, both the teachers and students alike. Many LMS vendors, including Moodle and Canvas, offer mobile applications for the most popular mobile platforms (Android, iOS). Additionally, there is an increase of mobile applications (mobile services) such as e-mails, short messages, video/voice calls, file sharing etc that can be useful for online student support. It is possible to use free versions of such applications to support online teaching and learning, with possibilities for synchronous and asynchronous communications. Mobile applications in particular, are really good for student support in terms of sending timely notifications and reminders of deadlines, announcements, request for clarifications, feedback and sharing of learning content (web links and files). This increased use of mobile applications for teaching purposes can be referred to as “Mobile teaching”. Although this might not be a new phenomenon (Kukulska-Hulme et. Al, 2005), (Rodrigo,2o11) there is a considerable increase in possibilities and technology acceptance as a results of increase in quality of mobile service and low costs for connectivity.
Mobile teaching is about more opportunities to provide learning content, monitor & assess students´ progress as well as undertake timely remedial measures where necessary. Today´s mobile technology allows users to stay connected and interact seamlessly across devices, time slots and physical locations. Mobile flexibility and mobility can be appreciated with consideration to the context of users (humans) as well as the possibilities of content creation, storage, distribution, and consumption across different technology platforms. the figure below presents a scenario of use with indicative elements of mobile teaching. In this scenario, both teachers and students have access to a learning platform (such as an LMS) provided by an institution of higher learning, and mobile services which can be provided by a third party. It is noted that, even though technology may support all the three main functionalities: creation, distribution and storage, the role and contribution of each category of users (i.e. teachers & students) remain different depending on the scenario of use.
Elements of mobile teaching
In most of cases, students are satisfied with mobile learning. However, it is still a subject of discussion whether teachers should be encouraged, or explicitly required to adopt mobile teaching. If yes, to what extent would mobile teaching be feasible? Would teachers find value in adopting the mobile teaching approach? Are they likely to trust mobile applications, especially those from third parties? Would teachers be willing to share their profiles with students in various media and fora? Are universities leadership likely to take into consideration the potential increase in workload, should a teacher want to adopt the “anytime, anywhere” teaching approach?
It is of concern to teachers whether to engage in mobile teaching, especially due to the expected increase in workload within the existing time constraints. The level of support and immediacy expected in the context of mobile teaching requires more resources. To keep students engaged, the teacher needs to show engagement in the topic too. And that can generate many, and possibly long discussion threads. Hence, it would be strongly advised to apply appropriate time management practices Lack of resources can also be a result of limited digital literacy among the teachers. Some of the mobile applications are not that easy to use and may not provide a satisfying user experience. Hence, teachers may need to spend more efforts to learn how to use the application and integrate its use into the instructional design. One of the usability issues could be directly related to the limitations of mobile devices in general, and mobile telephones in particular. For example, some teaching activities, such as creating relatively complex learning tasks, would require a bigger/full keyboard and a larger computer screen. The figure below shows some of the factors that can affect the adoption of mobile teaching.
Factors affecting successful adoption of Mobile Teaching
A more pertinent issue would be how to structure a course with consideration to learning tasks that can be created on-the-fly, as needs arise. Since teachers are likely to have more access to students ´online interactions, how can feedback be tailored to timely address observed/detected learning issues?
The cost of mobile devices has tremendously dropped in the last five years, but it cannot be assumed that all teachers have access to a decent mobile device. Processing power, storage capacity, battery life and network connectivity can still be of concern in certain corners of the world. The affordability and intention to use a mobile device for teaching purpose can greatly vary among the teaching community. Certainly, mobile teaching has a way to go, as far as quality online student support is concerned.
Online education offered by elite universities to a global audience, is a challenge to all universities. There are plenty of opportunities for any university that wants to take on the challenge. Lectures are no longer the all-important factor in higher education. A good learning environment with quality learning resources and appropriate student support systems are more important. Online or blended education can provide a high quality and flexible alternative to a growing mass of new students as well as to adult, life-long learners, without having to build massive new and costly campuses. However, traditional lecturing and credit systems are poorly adapted to these new approaches to education. Teachers who want to experiment with learning-centered modes, may risk finding that they must do much more work for less pay. The current system is too teaching centered to accommodate such experiments. There are very few good incentives for educational quality assurance at tertiary levels. The traditional credit giving system is too rigid and exam oriented to be conducive for flexible, life-long learning. A transition from a teaching-centered mode, over to more learning and learning centered approaches is urgently needed.
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