Dr. Jesse Martin is a thought-provoking educator. A Senior Lecturer at Bangor University in Wales, Dr. Martin focusses on the role of evidence-based in university education. Below, Jesse and I exchanged notes about the nature of change in higher education. 

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KCH: You wrote earlier this fall that many of the academics with whom you speak tend to be defensive when discussing the anticipated transformation of higher education; and that they “think that the world will change at their pace.” If this is the case, will learners – and those that fund higher education – wait for them?

JM: There is a great deal of unease in the sector because we can all see that things are changing. There is nothing new in change – that has always been with us. What is causing the unease is both the scale and speed of the change.

The first part of your question – will the learners wait – depends on what you mean by a learner. Most of us in higher education are painfully aware of the disconnect between learning and education today. A great many of the students don’t come to HE for learning, but come for a qualification. They want the points at the end of the game, and what they want from us is a clear set of rules and guidelines that will allow them to maximise their points and minimise their efforts. For these stakeholders, learning is one of the necessary challenges that occasionally gets thrown up as one of the obstacles in the game.

On the other hand, there are still some – I would guess the same relative proportion of the population – who have always wanted to learn, and that’s all they come to university for. Those who want to learn are satisfied with things as they are, and can’t really see the need for any massive overhauling of the system. They will succeed at the game, regardless of what we do to or for them. They will wait.

Bangor University
Bangor University, Wales

What massification of HE has done is increase (by a lot) the numbers who only want a qualification. I would say that the split is about 80/20, with the smaller number wanting to learn.

However, the larger group, the group that is in HE for a qualification, want to maximise their return with a minimal investment. For them they want as much prestige as they can afford, and as high a qualification as they can earn with as little effort as they can get away with. This is the group that I think will drive the greatest changes in HE. They will opt for non-traditional offerings if it works to their advantage. They know what they want, and will adapt to get it. They have no intention of waiting for anything (3 second wait for a website and they’re gone). If something that they think will suitably meet their needs comes along, they will opt for that.

The funders are another story. Private, for-profit providers are quickly moving into the non-traditional market, and as long as the sector is in a sellers market, the for-profits will charge a fortune and deliver a minimal experience – they are profit-oriented, and so will maximise their profits. As the number of available student places grow, and the availability begins to meet the demand, these for profit institutions will have to become more competitive, and the cost of a decent qualification from a for profit will drop dramatically. This will create high growth in this sub-sector as more and more students opt for private providers with better value for money (as far as qualifications go)

Governments are already withdrawing from the HE teaching sector, and are driving much of the change that we are experiencing. Although political expediency means that they pay lip service to teaching and learning, I think we will see a concentration of public monies in the big research-intensive institutions where the primary purpose is not teaching, but bringing prestige to the funder.

I think that the only significant stakeholders who will be willing to wait for lecturers to adapt are the students who really want to learn. The rest will (or are) simply react to the changing environment.

KCH. What are one or two of the more promising instructional approaches you are currently employing for your learners at Bangor University?

JM: The traditional approach to instruction involves a teacher reading, organising, and presenting information in bite sized chunks to the students for them to regurgitate back to me (with a little bit more) at some later date. My approach is to not do that.

In one of my classes (statistics in psychology) we’ve moved to a largely practical and problem based approach to teaching. The students produce data sets, and then I ask them what they want to find out from the data and how they think they might get it. I get some interesting approaches to data analyses (did you know that doing a find and replace in Excel returns the number of occurrences – an interesting way to count responses). The classes tend to be split on the approach with about half the students loving the freedom and half hating it that I’m not telling them what I want them to do. Regardless of what they feel about the approach, they learn how to manipulate numbers, and they understand the questions that they are asking of the data. I use a problem based, practical approach to learning a skill that they need in order to carry out research in psychology.

My most exciting class is about applying the principles of psychology to education. I provide loose guidelines about what I expect the students to bring back, and then I send them off to find out what they can. They give bi-weekly presentations (non-assessed) to each other (and to me), and write weekly blogs (assessed) about what they find. All I do is evaluate what they find.

As one of my students wrote last year: To put this bluntly, Jesse did nothing in this module; yet in doing nothing he did absolutely EVERYTHING… (The) end goal is learning. It’s the teacher allowing the students the freedom to make the classroom their own and to be there for them whenever they need a push in the right direction. This is proper teaching… (http://jackinabox2906.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/week-10-contemplating-educating/)

KCH: One of the aspects of the response to MOOCs that I have found most interesting is the implicit assumption that great research institutions necessarily produce great learning experiences. As an academic, how do you see the relationship between subject matter expertise among academics and educational value?

JM: I wrote about this earlier this year (see: http://hethoughts.wordpress.com/2012/05/25/the-dr-is-in-the-room/) and I still feel the same. I think that the two skills (teaching and research) are orthogonal. They have no relationship whatsoever. Great research is a mix of personality traits (inquisitiveness, attention to detail, methodological approach, etc.) and good training. Great teaching is a mix of personality traits (enthusiasm, empathy, positive outlook, creativity, etc.) and good training. There may appear to be a great deal of overlap, however the personality traits are different, and the training is different. Many will be good researchers, and many can be good teachers, with a few who end being great at both.

I would go so far as to suggest that being a hyper-expert can be (and often is) detrimental to good teaching. Often, the detail gets in the way of the story. Keeping in mind that the researcher is the one who knows about the detail, it is only natural that their interest gets in the way of good teaching.

I read somewhere (can’t remember where) that a topic area that could be covered in five minutes during a lecture in 1955 could be expanded to a full hours lecture by 1976. That same topic area can now be expanded to cover a full 15 week module. Hyper-experts end up so far out in the tendrils of their fields that the bigger picture gets lost along the way.

The second factor that this question alludes to is the ability to teach (my definition of teaching is to foster learning). Too often academics think that anyone can teach. Someone with years and years of experience in the field of education (first as a child, then as an undergraduate, and finally as a postgraduate) who eventually gains a PhD (or even a BA or BSc) knows what good teaching is (teacher cognition). They know what good teaching is because they have experienced it (as well as bad teaching). These pre-conceived ideas of good teaching by academics are highly resistant to change. However, just because you have experienced a lot of teaching doesn’t mean you are a good teacher.

Because institutions are made up of individual faculty or staff members who teach, the institutional reputation for research in no way reflects the quality of the teaching. Teaching is done by individuals, and although some researchers end up being good teachers, if the institutional focus is on research, good teaching is something usually happens by accident. Usually, leading research institutions put enough resources into teaching to achieve mediocrity and keep the student complaints to a minimum.

KCH: You’ve written a good deal about Christensen’s concept of disruptive innovation as it applies to higher education. Are there early symptoms of this disruption to which you think we ought to be paying more attention?

JM: The innovation that I think is the disruptive innovation or paradigm shift is the ubiquity of information. Digitisation has moved the world from information scarcity to information abundance. The symptoms of this change occur at both a micro and a macro level. The micro level symptoms include the general unease among lecturers (what is my value added), the rise in plagiarism, the demands of students for a better packaged product – these are things we are facing every day and should indicate (using John Naughton’s metaphor) that water is getting into the ship.

The macro symptoms that are easier to follow and notice as a community would include the encroachment of for profit institutions, the rise in open educational resources and open content, and the increase in teaching methods that take advantage of iniquitous content (e.g. MOOCs, blended learning, or flipped classrooms).

Christensen’s research demonstrates that the macro symptoms will be resisted by the established institutions to the point that so much resource has been put into defending themselves from the symptoms that we begin to see exhausted institutions collapsing in on themselves with no energy left to adopt.

The box has been opened, and the genie is out. We either figure out how to survive in this brave new world or we don’t.

Follow Jesse Martin’s blog HE Thoughts

4 thoughts on “Change in Higher Education: An Educator’s Perspective (Interview with Dr. Jesse Martin)

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