Monday, December 19, 2011

What Gok Wan can teach us about Higher Education

Higher Education Institutions up and down the country are asking themselves how to deal with student expectations in the forthcoming New Dawn of increased tuition fees. In my institution we have responded by increasing the number of contact hours by starting earlier in the term and finishing later.

The belief seems to be that students will demand more teaching for their money.

But is this right?

It is sometimes said that no-one wants a drill, they want a hole. Similarly students don't want teaching they want knowledge, skills and, ultimately, a qualification; teaching is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Being on the receiving end of teaching -- despite our best efforts -- doesn't always top of students' list of Things That Constitute a Fun-Packed Day. When my colleagues express surprise that students don't turn up for additional teaching I suggest they might find an answer if they replace the word "teaching" with "all over body waxing" or "rectal examination" which are also not ends in themselves.

Like all over body waxing, cosmetic surgery and dieting teaching is a necessary evil to achieve the end of positive change and it is this that we "sell". The creepy Dr. Christian Jessen presenter of Supersize versus Superskinny and the frankly bizarre Gok Wan presenter of I Like Fat Ladies know that people will endure all manner of humiliations and agonies if they can present them with a positive"before" and "after" picture at the end of the programme. 

Before and after pictures are difficult in HE, not least because of Red Queen effect "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place". Students just manage to acquire one set of skills/knowledge and we shift the assessment goal posts assessment in order us to ensure they have developed the next set. Although this is standard practice, it is hard to think of a more demotivating system: all that time, all that effort to go nowhere.

If we are to justify our extortionate fees to students and their parents we need to make it clearer that we are agents of positive change and we need to provide concrete evidence of this. Don't stress over the contact hours, look what you've become.