Many students tell us the most valuable thing they get from university is the small classes, the time when they get to interact with their lecturers and tutors: quality time. This is such a no-brainer it should hardly need to be stated. And yet it is important to remind oneself of this and some other similar things because we are in danger of losing sight of some of these simple truths in HE.
So students need to meet (not just see) their tutors. But universities have a difficult job managing the time of their academic staff since at least 60% of that time, as well as 60% of the focus of staff, the finances they handle etc usually has to be aimed at research. We need to get a balance, then, between what our students want and need and what our lecturers and teaching assistants can manage.
I’ll be speaking about something important I think we can do at the Innovations in Assessment event at UCL on February 23rd, so I’ll wait on those details for now; but I want to raise the issue of just how much contact a student will need with his/her teacher, now that we have such good technology, particularly video technology, to enable communication.
I think we can learn about the teacher-student relationship here from looking at the way other relationships are being mediated: our relationships with friends, families, business mentors, those in pastoral positions etc.
My basic feeling is this: you need to meet your teacher fairly regularly, in order to get a real feel for them as a person, a thinker and an educator, but improvements in technology, and in particular the coming of age of video communication, has reduced the necessity to meet with them several times a week in an educational setting.
To take one extreme, if you log in to an online course and only ever have a relationship by video with a teacher, then I think you will be missing out. You can certainly learn a lot from this sort of educational relationship, but not meeting with the teacher at all in person risks that the experience will fall short of what it might be. There is something about meeting someone in the flesh which is irreplaceable. We humans cannot be digitized and learning remains a deeply human activity.
On the other hand, once you have met your teacher – maybe, indeed, several times – there is no need to meet with them every time in person. That transferring of something real and human has gone on in the times when you met, and something of that feeling remains strongly in the relationship – even if the relationship then becomes mediated in some other way on subsequent occasions.
Of course, the whole nature of relationships and their mediation is changing (see, for example, this excellent clip showing Michael Wesch on the anthropology of YouTube). I now have at least 2 relationships with most people: an email relationship and a flesh and blood relationship. Frankly, sometimes my email relationships are really good when the ‘in person’ ones are not – and sometimes it is the other way round. I don’t think that’s a problem; actually, I like the diversity. We should also note (as a kind of counterweight to the idea that one needs to meet one’s teachers and intellectual mentors in the flesh) that sometimes such meetings are a disappointment! We are all familiar with the sensation of being let down when we meet someone whose work we have admired for years. They just seem…well…so human. Smaller than we hoped, more hairy, less realised, somehow. Can this really be the person whose mind contains those extraordinary insights, who gave rise to those beautiful works of art? I think this feeling can be particularly acute with people we have admired from afar and perhaps only read or heard, never seen speak. And there are now several possible layers to the disappointments – or, indeed, pleasant surprises – that can occur. You can love someone’s writing, then be put off by a video clip of them, then find them impressive again when you meet them in the flesh. Or you can find someone awkward in person but be surprised with how charismatic they are on film – and so on. In the next few posts I aim to upload some video here at this blog – and this will test my reader-only/video-watcher/real-life relationships with any who are reading here.
But despite these subtleties in the ways relationships are changing and caveats about not all introductions via video or in person being positive in furthering one’s admiration for a thinker, I think we can safely return to the point made above: the best way to learn is to check in from time to time in real life with your teacher. Let’s call this touching the hem. If that seems like a return to a more old-fashioned view of teacher and student, guru and disciple, so be it. We have moved too far away from being mentors to our students, even if the new mentoring is changing and we are all learning together in the powerful lights thrown up by the knowledge revolution.
We, all of us as learners, need to touch the hem from time to time. But the important point for university teaching and administration is that students do not need to touch the hem all the time; they don’t need to cling on to it, as it were. There are great ways to meet students using technology: video, webcasts, online forums, googledocs etc; these forms of communication keep the relationship alive but can help greatly to alleviate pressure on the time and organisation which face to face contact requires. Finding ways to communicate remotely also gives greater flexibility to students, and the degree to which a university facilitates and allows mediated communication may come to be an important factor in how a student values a university. In an era where many students will have to work while studying, or have obligations outside universities that make regular and repeated attendance more difficult, any quality contact that is given, mediated or not, will be appreciated. On 23rd Feb, I’ll be speaking of one way I think we in universities can make a significant step forward here.