I attended (and presented at) the University of Lincoln’s Sixth Teaching and Learning Symposium today. As always it was quite an intense day, but lots of good ideas got an airing. It’s a bit different from the traditional model of conference in that there are no keynote speakers, and most of the day is taken up with what we call “dialogues”. Basically everyone breaks up into groups and each group discusses a theme, suggested by the organisers. Then there’s a morming plenary, in which the discussions are condensed into action points for further discussion in the afternoon. Before and after lunch there are elective presentations which people can choose to go to. (of which mine was one – you can see the slides here – http://www.slideshare.net/jbeckton/the-iportfolio) I was slightly disappointed that there were only four people there, but on the plus side that’s four people who know more then they did before. And one or two others told me they had wanted to come, but it clashed with other electives they wished to attend. After the electives, delegates go back into their dialogue groups, and ultimately feed back to a plenary. The ideas are all fed onto an “ideas wall” (Really that’s just a lot of flipchart sheets stuck together!) , which is used to compile a report for circulation to all delegates, and which also contains ideas for taking the dialogue forwards. Which is really the point of the exercise!
Anyway the dialogue theme I chose was on “student expectations”, and as I suspected there was some dissatisfaction among the group with the notion of students as “customers”. The problem is of course that our capitalist economy tends to socialise everybody into thinking of themselves as customers in all sorts of contexts, and there are some aspects of university provision where that is not inappropriate. Students clearly do have cause for grievance if lecturers don’t turn up, the library isn’t open at reasonable hours. But if a student doesn’t make the effort to understand a discipline, can’t be bothered to learn how to use a library, then the idea that the “customer is always right” becomes rather less credible.
That raises further issues though. Is it reasonable for a student to expect that they be given a reading list? The view was expressed at one point that we shouldn’t do that, or post digitised readings on Blackboard, because that limits students’ exploration. (Why explore and criticise if they’ve been told that this is the “good stuff”?) But not to do so is to take a risk that students will complain, and in a customer oriented culture, the act of complaining itself acquires a spurious validity, which, in the current economic climate can prove a threat to an academic’s position. At best, it certainly adds to their workloads! This issue arose in the other elective (the one that I didn’t present) which was about enterprise in learning. Clearly, enterprise involves risk taking, but who is going to take risks when the stakes are high?
There was so much more to report on, but as I’ve said before brevity is the soul of blogging, and it is a pretty tiring format, so I’ll sign off for now