Friday 16 March 2012

The Gym Analogy and Student Fees in HE

Students are already paying huge fees and collecting debt. It’s going to get worse next year as fees rise to a level that may actually enable them to cover costs. Yet no one should expect to get a good degree unless they put in the work. This is where the gym analogy is useful. You can’t expect to get fit just by paying your membership fee. You have to put the hours in and stretch yourself as well.
However, this does mean that the students have a right to expect certain things:
A comfortable and inspiring environment
Good facilities to aid their study – library, internet, computers etc.
Expertise from their lecturers
Regular feedback on their work
Stimulating debate with their peers
I gave a lecture last week to our first year students on one of their core modules. It was better attended than many but still not as well attended as I would have liked. I was giving a Power Point presentation. This slide show was almost like notes to myself. But it also saved the students having to take in page numbers, names and dates by ear. The projector did start up fine then suddenly stopped working. They had to take the lecture in via their ears after all. I will emphasize at this point that this is unusual. This has never happened to me before.
Is this the time to remember that “lecture” actually means reading? Dusty old professors used to mumble out their lecture notes when I was an undergraduate. But they were so learned and clever we didn’t mind.
You may wonder why I didn’t print out a copy of the slide presentation for my students. It’s probably because over the last few years, I’ve printed them out every time and had to throw away a not inconsiderable amount of paper at the end of the semester. All those copies for all those students who did not attend.  The Power Point presentation is on Blackboard, our VLE anyway. As are lecture notes.
So, if the PowerPoint presentation and the lecture notes are on Blackboard, what is the point of coming to the lecture? We know that Life happens to our students and with the best will in the world they can’t attend every week. That is why we have not yet gone the route of demanding full attendance. Some students need the extra support of seeing the material in writing.
Well, maybe I’ll tell a joke.
It’s perhaps a little more obvious why students would benefit from seminar attendance. A discussion is part of it and in my discipline they more often than not become creative writing workshops.
However, we’re moving towards being firmer on attendance. The other side of this is that we have to make it worth students’ while to attend. I personally do not mumble from notes like the dusty old professors. I like to speak to my audience, maintain eye-contact and react to how they’re understanding, going into more detail on some points and speeding through others that the students seem to understand readily. Plus students can ask questions as they think of them or at the end of the lecture. It’s harder to do that when reading from Blackboard. But I believe I’m just as much an expert as the old profs were.
Plus there is something about making notes. I still do it when I go to talks. You take in the information with your eyes and ears. You process it in your brain and you write down with your hand what you have understood.  It’s old-fashioned but it is an act of confirmation. I noticed one student writing avidly the other day, hanging on my every word. Good on him – even though it’s all there on Blackboard.    
Going back to the gym analogy: the gym has been set up with the best of equipment to date that the fees can buy. The most valuable resource is the expertise of the staff who work there. I quite honestly think that my colleagues and I couldn’t work harder though we might be able to work smarter and we’re open to that and willing to learn. Now, if the clients want to get fit they must put in the hours.                 

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