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In defence of transformation

Change we can (try to) believe in.


There’s been a lot of chatter lately about a generically ominous buzz phrase: “academic transformation.” What does that term mean? As usual, it depends on who’s using it, and their audience. There are undoubtedly some who use it to mean more teaching for less money, others who mean massive injections of technology into the classroom, and even some who are crusading for the end of the lecture course, which they see as an obsolete concept. For every complex problem, there is no shortage of simple, crisp, easy-to-grasp, wrong answers. Doing more with less isn’t transformative and neither is extending the already widespread use of various learning technologies. Discarding the lecture format might be transformative, but so is cutting off a leg – not all transformation is positive.

The problem with lectures (if there is a problem with lectures) is not the format itself, which has proven to be remarkably effective over a few thousand years of practice, but that it is over-used. Students tell us, directly and indirectly, that a lecture-heavy schedule erodes engagement. The familiarity and logistic simplicity of the lecture-based course has become a default strategy – a rut into which our academic wheels are trapped. Spinning in that rut limits our ability to respond to unavoidable challenges and resource pressures, because when academic effort is measured by lecture-oriented contact hours, the economics of teaching are ruthlessly dominated by faculty salaries. We need transformative change in the underlying equations if we are to improve quality without an impossible increase in funding.

Technology is clearly part of such change. The technology available to students, as well as to researchers, has transformed itself many times over in the past few decades. Scholars of my generation had to learn all sorts of time-consuming tricks to find information; remember the vast Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature? Now Google measures in milliseconds the search results that used to take days. So the transactional costs of finding basic facts and context have been vastly reduced. Other kinds of friction have also been demolished. I no longer need a mimeograph or photocopier or corporate publisher to distribute highly polished notes, slides and even whole books. This in turn means that I can keep course material that’s consumed “off-line” much more topical and up-to-date.

Think of the transformation introduced by movies and sound recordings, which made it pos-sible to appreciate live performances elsewhere than the original event. We still go to plays and concerts, and we still need lectures, but the technologically assisted media are an order of magnitude less costly and more accessible. YouTube, blogs and ubiquitous phone-borne micro-apps are pushing this equation even further. And today’s students have grown up in a world where the boundary between computing and communication has been obliterated. They will eagerly consume information made available through their devices, if only it’s made available.

Technology can extend the reach of instruction without a proportional increase in time and cost, but more importantly, it can free the precious resource of the individual instructor’s personal attention from being consumed in presentation of basic facts and elementary principles. And it’s not just technology: expanding the use of hybrid courses, experiential learning, problem-based learning and other techniques also allow essential contact time to be focused on high-value interaction instead of routine information transmission. The point is to rethink the structure of courses to make better use of resources and to rely less heavily on one mode. This kind of transformation is a challenge and there will be up-front costs, but the goal is to move the whole system to a new level of effectiveness and overall engagement.

Let students absorb the foundations on their own time (and let them be challenged to develop the necessary discipline and time-management skills). Let the instructor specialize in active and interactive problem-solving, discussion, debate and Socratic dialogues that transmit critical perspective and insight as well as knowledge. Every professor I know would rather spend more time teaching students how to think than what to remember. We need to embrace learning modes that encourage students to teach themselves the easy stuff, so we can focus on the subtleties and complexities. Contact time should be special and compelling and memorable – like a live performance – not something you don’t think twice about skipping because you’ll get notes from someone later. This is a form of “increased efficiency” that relies on making teaching and learning more rewarding, not less.

Maureen Mancuso is provost and vice-president, academic, at the University of Guelph and a 3M National Teaching Fellow.
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  1. Felix Baerlocher / January 18, 2013 at 9:19 am

    “Every professor I know would rather spend more time teaching students how to think than what to remember”

    Many professors I know would prefer to work with graduate or post-graduate students, who have the knowledge, skills and imagination to do creative, independent research. Should we therefore ignore students until they have acquired these traits on their own? Presenting and explaining the basics in any field of study and monitoring the students’ progress may not be glamorous but to me remain an essential part of a professor’s job. I’m sceptical about the effectiveness of teaching someone to think in a fact and skill free vacuum. And let us not overestimate our ability to teach someone to think. “If you make someone think that they are thinking, they will love you for it. If you make them actually think,they will hate you for it” (Don Marquis?).

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