Is it time to shift our conversation from modular innovation to programme design?

A child shouting through a microphone

Source: Andrew Rich/iStock

Should we advocate so heavily for new innovations?

When we go to education conferences or write educational blogs about some latest innovation, we are usually speaking to an open-minded, generally accepting audience. Then we go back to our departments and proclaim the innovation and its benefits to our colleagues, and it can be frustrating when the response is a polite dismissal. And so we stop proclaiming, secure in the knowledge that an innovation is beneficial to our teaching. We stop talking to the people we want to convince, but continue talking to the people who attend the conferences and read the blogs.

In my darker moments I wonder about the benefits of all these different teaching innovations. I would love to get an enormous grant to address the research question: “does throwing oranges at an audience increase their attention span and hence enhance their learning?” I’d vary the rate of orange flow and garner some student comments on the improved attention and publish it in a prestigious journal. It’s a novel method and I know it works, so I’d want to make sure the journal article conveys this, implicitly at least.

There are lots of teaching innovations out there. And there are lots of articles and blogs about how great they are. And in a sweeping statement, I will say they probably all help with the process of student learning. A little bit. Does the use of clickers in class help more than a problem-based learning approach? I advocate flipped lecturing; does that trump case-based teaching? We’ll probably never know, and it probably doesn’t matter. Teaching innovations generally have at their core the concept of active learning. Is that where we should focus our advocacy?

Charles Henderson, whose work I cannot recommend highly enough, has summarised a lot of teaching innovations and their adoption with physics and chemistry academics. One of his many interesting findings was that most academics have heard of particular strategies, but had decided either not to try them, or who have tried them but decided not to continue because the implementation didn’t go as expected. It was oversold, without proper acknowledgement of the pitfalls and limitations of the concept. They were sold a Ferarri but weren’t told that it wouldn’t go up the bumpy laneway to your house. The car has to go back to the garage. Journal editors have a duty to insist that authors include implementation issues and limitations in articles, but all of us who advocate any particular method have a duty to give the full story of implementation, good and bad.

Despite the volume of articles, conference attendance and online talk about teaching innovations, the bulk of higher education appears to rely on the lecture, despite its acknowledged flaws. The question I have for any reader who has remained with me is this:

Do we need to change our conversation?

In advocating a particular innovation with a particular group of students in a particular way, are we distracting ourselves and our colleagues from the core issue of considering the more holistic questions of how students are actively interacting with their degree programme and what is the sum benefit of these interactions?  

I could count on one hand the number of conference presentations I have heard about programme design, but have heard dozens, and given a few myself, on modular initiatives. Perhaps we need to shift the focus back to programme design, and perhaps in the process we will both engage our colleagues and place a responsibility on them and us to consider active learning in the curriculum. When they look for specific examples, well, we have plenty to share.

I’m interested to hear any thoughts on programme design or good examples from practice.