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Teaching innovation and quality

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A Technical Memo
Stephen W. Draper
Department of Psychology
University of Glasgow
Glasgow G12 8QQ U.K.


Sue English, Harold Silver, and Andy Hannan gave a seminar to TLS at Glasgow University on 4 Nov. 1998. These notes are what I learned from that. They were discussing their project on innovation in HE, based on interview studies with "innovators" at selected HEIs (Higher Education Institutions).

At the same time, a discussion paper presented to ITFORUM offered a parallel set of questions.

The dimensions

My personal emerging view is comprised of a set of polarities, dimensions, or contrasts to think about.

Dimension 1:

[From Harold Silver] Top down, or bottom (i.e. grass roots) up. Innovation may be initiated by policy from the top of an HEI; or it may be done by isolated individuals. An example of the former would be Glasgow's introduction of the IT course for undergraduates, which has been quickly adopted and exploited by departments, and particularly by individuals in departments, without either costs to those adopters or alienating others by insisting all staff make use of it. A small example of the latter would be my development of the computer supported cooperative lecture notes (CSCLN) exercise.

Can also see this as / this seemed to be related by Harold to:

Dimension 1b:

Proactive (planning to achieve some new good) vs. reactive (modifying methods in response to situational pressures that have made old methods fail e.g. rising class sizes). E.g. promoting basic computer literacy for all students vs. using email for class admin. because the class no longer fits in any single lecture theatre for announcements.

Dimension 2:

[From Ron Emanuel] Innovation aimed at old learning objectives attained by new and better methods; vs. new objectives requiring new methods. My niche paper focusses on the former (arguing against technology-led innovation); an example of the latter would be to add group working skills to the curriculum and so having to introduce group work as a method.

Dimension 3:

Innovation vs. teaching quality. Have no necessary relationship. I.e. innovation may lower quality, or very often with technology-led projects, approximately maintain the same outcomes by different methods. Conversely, old methods often continue to achieve high quality learning; this point is given extra interest by realising that many current practices that are apparently traditional such as student projects supervised by researchers score highly on "new" educational theories of apprenticeship and situated learning.

Dimension 4:

Conscious or unconscious about teaching as a goal. On the one hand, a promotion of "reflective practitioners" and a focus on teaching as an institutional objective might be expected to support both quality and innovation (and so failure to treat teaching as a rewarded objective might be expected to block both). On the other hand:

Dimension 5:

[From Alison Phiggs] What motivates HE teachers? This is probably intertwined with dimension 4.

Dimension 6:

[From Harold vs. Melanie] Is / should innovation and best practice be transmitted within disciplines (and across HEIs) or within HEIs (and across disciplines). Harold pointed out that funding (for teaching innovations) is becoming more discipline-based, while Melanie spoke for the cross-department sharing that is in fact implied by the existence of any central unit such as TLS. My own experience supports both. Within a discipline you can actually share specific materials (as we explored in MANTCHI), and you can expect people will immediately understand your aims, your problems, and the characteristics of your students and their failings without long explanations. On the other hand, I had the experience on a TLS course of learning from other participants from totally different disciplines, often just because what is standard practice for them can be the innovation I need for one of my problems.

Mind you, in some ways the above is an overly grand contrast. Simply sharing experience and solutions within a department would be a huge step forward. On the rare occasions I have sat in on colleague's lectures, I always learn something.

Questions proposed by Bromley

In a paper presented for discussion to ITFORUM, Hank Bromley proposes four questions to ask about the use of technology particularly in education. These come from his field of "Science and Technology Studies", and are designed to resist the two logically opposite but widespread implicit views either that technology is an inevitable force changing our world or that technology is entirely neutral and subservient to our pre-existing goals.

  1. Why is this [technology innovation] initiative even occurring? In particular, is it technology-driven (based on a perceived need to have the latest technology) or curriculum-driven (based on a careful discussion of educational goals, and of what means are lacking in order to reach those goals)?
  2. What social visions are built into - and in turn enacted by - a given technology? Does it enforce particular forms of pedagogy, or of classroom organization? Does it impose a certain conception of knowledge or of the learning process? Is it compatible only with particular views of what education is for?
  3. How is the context of use likely to shape the way this technology is employed? Who is using it, why, toward what ends, under what conditions and pressures, with what supporting resources?
  4. Disaggregate the impact; do not limit your view to the effects on the most visible or most powerful persons. How are groups of people in different structural locations likely to be affected differently by this initiative? Who will be helped, and how; who will be harmed, and how?
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