Sunday 3 July 2011

Contact time in higher education

There’s a lot of concern about how much contact time students get at higher education institutions. Typically, students receive nine hours a week over 24weeks a year. Exams will be spreads over a further four weeks. At my institution, students enjoy 22-33 hours contact on courses which are supposed to last 200 hours.
School children typically have 25 hours of lessons on 39 weeks, with an extra half hour per day for assemblies and registrations, followed by one to two hours homework a week.
However, it may not really be as different as it sounds.
School students tend to spend five minutes getting form one lesson to another. Often, getting the logistics of the lesson right is more time-consuming: it takes longer to give out hand-outs etc. – there are more students and they are less motivated than university students. A classroom teacher in compulsory education settings spends some time on discipline. Even a really well-behaved class will spend a certain amount of time on classroom routines and rituals. There is rarely any confrontational behaviour in higher education – if a student doesn’t want to be in a class they don’t turn up and may even sneak out part way through. They’ll pick up the hand-out on the way to their seat – if they haven’t already downloaded it themselves for their VLE (virtual learning environment). It’s a given that work had been prepared before the class began – and even if, as frequently happens, students come to class unprepared - at least they know the onus is on them. Exam time is included is the 39 X 25 hours in school. Up to half of the type of work that higher education students do in the other 150 hours or so is actually done in class by school students within the 39 X 25 hours.
It’s a different quality of time anyway, in a higher education class. I personally find a two hour seminar with university students far more draining than even a whole day in a challenging comprehensive school. The students suck knowledge out of you. Even if you set them a bit of pair work in class, you can rarely sit back: they find questions to ask and you feel that because of their enthusiasm you need to be able to jump in and offer further suggestions.
In school, teachers pass on a recognised body of knowledge, often defined in part by the government. In higher education, lecturers teach about their research. As they are constantly adding to this, they are constantly adding to the VLE for the course and constantly advising students of this. As the students are keen to learn, they often email their lecturers with questions, or visit them during the two office hours offered per week. Most lecturers will see students at other times as well. Most courses timetable a fifteen minute one-to-one tutorial in addition to the 22-33 hours. And students get another three or four minutes – longer in awkward cases – feedback when assignments are handed back. Admittedly some need to spend more of this ad hoc time with lecturers than others. But it is there if it’s needed. Many students are encouraged to join in wikis, blogs and forums.  Some lecturers even use Twitter and Facebook. Lecturers have a presence too on these types of platforms.   
All in all, then, there is probably less difference between contact time in schools and contact time in institutions of higher education that one might at first think.             

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