Chapter 26: Present and Future Teaching Methodologies

26.1 We turn now, as promised in paragraph 25.1, from course length to teaching methodology. Current full-time undergraduate courses are usually built around a framework of formal lectures in which the main constituents of the subject are presented by lecturers knowledgeable in particular topics. Class sizes are often large and lecturer/student interaction is limited to a very few interruptions and a small number of questions at the end of the lecture. Students listen and usually they take notes.

26.2 The lecture's duration (usually fifty minutes) is small compared with the effort of preparation. Updating lecture notes, slides, hand-outs and other ancillary aids can take several times as long as the lecture itself, and the multiplier becomes larger when a course is taught for the first time. Hence any attempt to gauge the workload of academic staff by counting lecture hours will materially underestimate the effort needed to deliver this aspect of higher education.

26.3 The formal lecture, with its limited staff/student interchange, is usually supplemented by informal classes in which undergraduates can more readily ask questions because of a better staff/student ratio. These classes can take many different forms. They often involve the student undertaking specific work - essays, examples, reading - either during the class or in preparation for it, or they may simply offer the student an opportunity to look afresh at the content of a lecture. To be effective, the classes need favourable student/staff ratios (often 15:1 or less) and are thus expensive in staff labour. It is not uncommon to employ research students, as well as academic staff, in order to make this possible.

26.4 In subjects with a practical element there will, in addition to lectures and classes, be laboratory work of various kinds - listening to language tapes, performing experiments in science or technology, observing human or animal behaviour, conducting surveys, doing computer exercises, and so on. Because these learning modes usually involve supervision or the availability of resource personnel, research students may again be used to supplement the labour force. In some subjects there will be professional work under supervision - teaching children, examining patients, etc. Again, all of this is expensive of staff time and accounts in large part for the differing student/staff ratios between disciplines.

26.5 Higher-education students also do substantial work on their own -- that is, without direct "teaching" or supervision. A full-time undergraduate is sometimes said to be "reading for a degree". The reading will in part be directed: sections of books or papers or other material which are necessary background for lectures or necessary preparation for classes. Often the reading will be supplemented with homework assignments, which are graded to provide the student with feedback and to provide a basis for evaluation. (Grading is another labour-intensive activity which often employs research students.) In part, however, and increasingly as the student progresses through the course, the reading should be self-motivated and driven by curiosity. It is here that the student "learns how to learn" - an attribute which may be much more valuable than the assimilation of the subject specific content of undergraduate courses.

26.6 This capacity to seek out information - an understanding of the processes by which new knowledge can be quickly and competently acquired - is one of the most important life skills which an undergraduate education can impart. It is desirable that the beginner should not suffer too many early frustrations. Sufficient copies of books and ready access to them, effective and simple cataloguing, adequate reading places, user-friendly electronics and sufficient work stations are all needed if the tyro is to learn to work alone. The experience is very different from the all too common "spoon feeding" of sixth form education. Although this self-learning does not involve very much academic staff time, except in discussing it, the costs are not negligible. The facilities in terms of buildings, books and other hardware and software and library and technical supporting staff can amount to more than 5% of an institution's budget.

26.7 In the preceding chapter and paragraphs we have considered the purposes of full-time undergraduate education, both "general" and "specific", the length of course currently needed to achieve them, and the teaching methodologies presently in use. In the remaining paragraphs of this chapter we shall ponder whether the period after 1998 will bring significant changes in teaching methodology. We shall take as given the "general" purposes and benefits we have described (paragraph 25.2): an overall development of the powers of the mind, flexible and innovative approaches to the problems of both work and leisure, skill in communication with others, learning to participate in a community, and an appreciation of both one's own and different cultures. We believe that the most satisfactory outcome in terms of general higher education is achieved when students live in or near their institutions, meet and talk with staff and fellow students in the context of both the course being followed and extra-curricular activities, and learn to use the diverse facilities of a higher education campus. As far as the "specific" purposes of undergraduate education are concerned, physical presence may in future be less important.

26.8 The advent of information technology means that some outcomes from "specific" higher education will be achieved differently in future years. The differences will have important implications for institutions, staff, and students. Information technology applications will affect educational processes in three ways.

26.9 The first is as a productivity aid. This will enable teachers and learners to do the kinds of things they now do - plus things yet to be invented - faster and more effectively. Examples include word processing, spreadsheets, graphing programs, and electronic mail. These tools will become ubiquitous and used by students and staff as a matter of course, like telephones and pocket calculators today. 

26.10 The second is for enrichment. Enrichment add-ins extend the range of conventional teaching methods. Examples include the use of video, multimedia and simulation to enhance classroom presentations, plus electronic library access and information acquisition on the World Wide Web to enhance conventional homework assignments. Enrichment add-ins provide more information and improve the way information is presented, but they do not change the basic interaction between teacher and student.

26.11 The third is as a facilitator of student-initiated learning. Technology can extend the range of student-initiated learning beyond what is normally considered practical in homework assignments. While student-initiated learning is as old as reading itself, technology will stretch the limits of what students can assimilate between contacts with an instructor. Interactive learning modules can help motivate students and guide them through complex materials. Technology can also facilitate and mediate contact among students, in which case the students themselves contribute stimulation and guidance.

26.12 Over the long run, technology's ability to transform student-initiated learning will shift higher education away from its roots as a handicraft endeavor wherein students see themselves as almost totally dependent upon instructors and each member of staff retains full responsibility for and control over his or her part of the learning process. Doubtless the transformations will occur first and go furthest in disciplines where knowledge is the most codified, where the design of learning modules is easiest and the centrality of free-flowing discussion least. But it is likely that, sooner or later, virtually all disciplines will be affected. Instructors will come to expect students to master more material before coming to class, and staff will use the learning modules' built-in assessment instruments to monitor performance. Staff time will be leveraged as more intelligence is built into the learning modules, and the learning potential of staff-student contact time will be enhanced. 

26.13 Material on disc and tape will not replace the small class tutorial, where discussion is unbounded, but it will offer increasing opportunities for self-learning. Indeed, the availability of a rich diversity of electronic material, either in small units or readily edited to that form, may in time solve the problem which we posed in paragraph 25.5: of tailoring a course to the individual student as the spread of capacity for and speed of learning increases with greater age participation rates. Technology will improve the quality and range of teaching and learning by providing: (a) better access to information; (b) more active learning as opposed to passive listening to lectures; (c) more learning (and teaching) at times and places most convenient to the student; (d) more opportunities for collaborative learning (students working together on projects); and (e) "mass customization," wherein technology-mediated learning experiences are tailored to individual student needs.

26.14 Technology also will relieve staff of some of the drudgery associated with teaching (such as grading and repetitive lecture preparation and delivery), and enable more satisfying class discussions among better-prepared students. The intellectual challenges and intrinsic rewards associated with large-scale adoption of information technology may also encourage staff to focus more heavily on teaching. These benefits more than justify the time, effort, and investment that will be required to make large-scale usage a reality. 

26.15 However, we also must emphasize that technology has its limits. Viewing a video about a different culture is not a substitute for meeting foreign students first-hand or listening to a guest lecturer from another country. Nor is hearing the best of recorded music or analyzing it using sophisticated software equivalent to stumbling through a piece with fellow undergraduates. Perhaps most important, even the best expert computer system cannot replicate the capacity of a live instructor. The charismatic lecturer, the challenging leader of Socratic dialogue, the skilled facilitator, and the empathetic mentor will retain their key roles in the educational process. Technology will leverage the human element in education, not replace it.

26.16 Technology will lower the barriers of distance -for example, by bringing instructors and students on different campuses, or even different continents, together in a common learning environment. But this will not erase the advantages of campus-based residential education. Much of the intellectual development and almost all of the social development which full-time undergraduate education engenders depend upon physical presence in the institution. Technology offers less expensive distance-based alternatives, but educational principles, experience, and student preference all indicate that campus-based education can produce better overall results. It is argued by some that such education is a luxury which can no longer be afforded. We disagree, and will return to this point in Annex F (see paragraph 26.21).

26.17 Nor does the full-scale adoption of information technology imply that courses and programs will become standardized, slaves to the "universal lecture series" (on video) or universal set of student assignments. Undergraduate courses are not, nor in our view should they be, produced to a uniform pattern. Although the title of a course (say "First Year Thermodynamics") may be the same in many places, the content will depend upon the context in which it is set (an engineering department?, a physics department?) and the purposes for which the knowledge is to be used. It is neither likely nor necessary that an instructor in (say) biochemistry will embrace another's taped or CD course in toto. Still less is it likely in a more subjective subject such as Chinese painting. Staff should be free to mix and match a variety of materials acquired from outside their institution with self-developed resources - including but not limited to the traditional lecture - to deliver the most appropriate content and greatest value for their students.

26.18 We do see a style of teaching developing in which fewer elements are built up from the beginning and then "professed" by each individual instructor. Institutions will cease to consider instructors as "lecturers," but rather will see them as designers and managers of student-oriented learning processes as well as direct purveyors of content. Staff will continue to be content experts but they will routinely call upon a much wide range of resources than at present. "Make or buy decisions," on a scale that dwarfs today's decisions about textbook adoption or whether to use a particular enhancement add-in, will become commonplace. The shift from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side" will not come easily, but in time the perceived advantages of not having to "invent everything here" will break down resistance to abandoning the traditional handicraft mentality.

26.19 The changes will require large investments in hardware, software, and externally-produced courseware, plus a considerable amount of institutional retooling. There ultimately will be some net financial economies, but they will be slow in coming. As economist Arnold Weber, until recently the President of Northwestern University in the United States, has stated: "Universities have traditionally been labor intensive; during the technology revolution they will be both labor and capital intensive." We believe that the expected educational quality benefits demand the adoption of information technology - to maintain or increase competitiveness if for no other reason. Cost savings beyond the UGC's presently projected five percent or so, which include all kinds of institutional productivity enhancements, should not be expected.

26.20 In summary, our expectations for full-time undergraduate education post-1998 are that the "general" benefits will still require physical presence on the campus for two to three years, but that important aspects of the "specific" learning process will be transformed through the use of technology. In time the current three-year course-based undergraduate education may well be replaced by a more flexible system where the content, and possibly even the course length, is adapted to the individual student. Some of the changes which we envisage will, at least in the short term, require more effort by academic staff, some will reduce their workload. In the longer term we expect net savings, but caution against over-optimistic expectations.

26.21 Our exploration of the possible impact of information technology in the present chapter has necessarily been of limited scope. The range of possibilities is not, of course, confined to undergraduate teaching. We give consideration to other aspects of the electronic revolution in Annex F.

26.22 Hong Kong's higher-education institutions are well-positioned to exploit the advantages of information technology. Their technological sophistication, equipment, and infrastructure are good and the system offers more opportunities for innovation than are extant in most other places. While the barriers to transformation are significant here as elsewhere, Hong Kong can reasonably aspire to be among the leaders.

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