The Changing University

Diana Laurillard
The Open University


"The Changing University" seems to me to be a timely theme for our discussion. We encounter more and more rhetoric about how universities must change, and forecasts of how they will change, and even expectations that they may cease to exist as we know them. In the past 15 years we have seen some dramatic changes in the way universities operate, and that fast pace seems to be continuing. But what is driving those changes? Is it a vision of how universities can make society more progressive? Or the energy of new and exciting intellectual ideas? Or the collective will of academics to rethink the role of the university?--No, of course, there is little vision, or energy, or collective academic will entering into the debate at all, unless you count the overblown blather about the "information superhighway" as vision. Instead, the drivers for change have been the need to expand access, the need to cut costs, and the economic potential of using new technology. There is no denying the importance of these imperatives, but by themselves they amount to a completely inadequate program for change, incapable of being a genuinely progressive force. They are wholly external pressures that bear no relation to the substantive content of higher education, so they cannot advise us where universities should be going, nor why. I would like to consider what we believe should be the basis for change.

What is academic learning?

Suppose we were to start the analysis from the other end: by articulating what it should mean to be a university graduate; what counts as academic knowledge; what value a university education has?--and then if we set that against where we are now, and consider what direction change should take, where might that take us?

Recently I wrote a book entitled Rethinking University Teaching--not "changing" it, notice, "rethinking." Change is implied, of course, but only after thinking it through. It began with a review of what lecturers think academic knowledge is, what a university education is about--and the views coalesced, inevitably, around a clutch of high-level intellectual skills and knowledge: depth of understanding, fundamental discipline knowledge, analytical approach, critical thinking, interpretive skill, reflective practice, personal responsibility for one's knowledge and process of learning. However you define a university education, there is always a sense of activity on the part of the student, making the knowledge their own, embedded in their way of interacting with the world; knowledge and skill, theory and practice combined.

How do students approach learning?

Having established that there is some consensus among academics about what university education is, I then looked at what research on student learning has to tell us about the reality of this from the point of view of the student, in particular, "How do they approach learning?" and "What happens in the process of coming to understand a subject?" There are many studies now that document the difficulties students have in maintaining the links between theory and practice, and in matching the academic theory to the world around them, in knowing how to position themselves in this world of strange languages, specialist symbolisms, and all those well-articulated and strongly-held points of view. Trying to encapsulate these findings in a simple but expressive conceptual framework, it seemed to me that there was a minimalist description of the process of academic learning below which you could not go. It is quite complex, but it cannot be any simpler and still claim to capture all that is implied in what academics think they are doing, and research studies have found students trying to do.

The "Conversational Framework" for academic learning (p. 103 if you have the book), describes the teaching-learning process as an interaction between teacher and student, operating at two levels. The "discursive level" is the level of theory. This represents the way the teacher articulates the subject matter, or presents the ideas, and the student joins the dialogue, putting their point of view, asking questions, practicing the moves of language and argument, proof and representation. The teacher must then have the opportunity to re-express their point, in order to clarify or elaborate, and then the student must be able to have another attempt at representing the theory to be sure the dialogue has arrived at consensus between the two--the four-stage process is the minimum required to guarantee consensus.

The "interactive level" is the level of practice, representing the way the student acts in the world, or at least in a world constructed by the teacher such that their interactive activities will give them experience of the theory in action. Here the teacher sets a task, the student acts, the world responds to their action, and the student can modify their action in order to better achieve the goal of the task. This represents the field trip, or the laboratory experiment, or any situation where the teacher sets an exercise and gives feedback that enables the student to improve their performance. Theory and practice should not remain separate, of course, and ideally, the student should be using the theoretical description to "adapt" their actions, and also to "reflect" on their experiences as they articulate their ideas at the discursive level. Therefore the student is using "reflecting" and "adapting" to link the two levels at which they are operating. Similarly, the good teacher will be using evidence of the student's understanding of theory to "adapt" the interactive activities to those appropriate to the students' needs, and will "reflect" on their performance at the interactive level in elaborating the theory.

The conversational framework highlights the iterative character of the learning process. At both levels that iteration must be able to occur--practice with feedback, and continued dialogue between student and teacher to progress towards a faithful articulation of the theory. This is nothing new. Vygotsky emphasized the social aspect of knowledge. Piaget emphasized the constructive character of learning. Dewey emphasized the importance of integrating theory with practice. Pask emphasized the link between the descriptive and operational aspects of understanding. Academic learning requires all of these. We certainly cannot get away with a less complex framework.

What do educational media offer?

Having developed the framework, I then used it to examine the teaching methods and media now available to higher education, to see which were capable of delivering this complex iterative process. None could do it all, but all of them could do something, and judicious combinations could do quite a lot. This was the basis for one of the key arguments in the book: that a mix of teaching and learning methods will always be the most efficient way to support student learning, because only then is it possible to embrace all the activities of discussion, interaction, adaptation, and reflection, which I have argued are essential for academic learning.

The point of doing this in the book was to provide lecturers with a way of deciding on which media to use. In order not to be entirely technologically-driven in our planning, we have to be clear about the rationale for choosing computer-based learning rather than traditional methods. This comparison of the media with respect to the different learning activities they support was useful for demonstrating that just as traditional methods were lacking, so are computer-based ones. We cannot expect to do all our teaching via the computer, although that is an expectation that occasionally creeps into the debate, and must be questioned at every opportunity. However, the analysis also emphasized that whereas the traditional methods are better at the "discursive" learning activities than computer-based ones, they are much less good at the "interactive" aspects, in which the student engages with the practice of their subject. Let me try to illustrate this.

The balance of student study activities

Traditional methods of teaching and learning tend to favor the presentational aspects of the process more than the active ones. What is the student required to do in each of the standard teaching methods? For lectures, and for reading print-based materials, which are both purely presentational in form, the students are required to do little more that "attending," a one-sided part of the discursive level. They are truly active only when they are given exercises or tasks to practice the techniques they have been taught. This is the interactive level, although it may be the case that only part of this iterative process actually occurs. Do they receive feedback on their actions? How often is the student's work checked in a problem class; does the lab experiment really give feedback or is what happens an unexpected mystery? If the teacher is supervising closely and the practice exercise is well-designed, then this kind of exercise could certainly sustain the interactive level of the learning process.

This is also the point at which students can begin to make the connection between the practice and theory, although of course while they are doing lab-work, or field-work, or problem classes, there is rarely any opportunity for the individual student to have a dialogue with the teacher. Teacher-student dialogue may be available, but in the different teaching context of the tutorial or small group (or rather large group, as is generally the case these days).

And how does the student practice the articulation of their subject, which is the other part of the discursive level? This is the stage at which they develop and generate their own ideas, their own expression of the knowledge they are learning--the point at which they make it their own. That really only occurs in the assignment tasks when they do essays and project work. And of course the feedback on the assignment will be separate again. So the essential activities in the learning process are covered in some way for the traditional modes of teaching, but they are attenuated over time--students have to sustain those connections across a range of learning sessions. Moreover, they are usually doing that over several subjects simultaneously.

We can map this distribution of student learning activities for the range of standard teaching modes experienced by a student in a 40-hour study week. These figures are taken from an engineering department in a campus-based university. Checking them with staff from different departments and another university revealed several differences. It would be hard to identify a typical distribution, but the general pattern was usually the same, that attending was by far the commonest activity:


"Practicing" the activities relevant to their subject domain accounts for a smaller part of how most students spend their time. "Discussing" is rarer than it used to be because of the decline of the small group tutorial. "Articulating," which is certainly done in essays and project work, may also be done through seminar presentations, but this happens so seldom for an individual student that it is negligible in the scope of a standard 40-hour study week.

It is interesting to compare this data with the familiar claims of educators and psychologists of the importance of "learning through doing"--it began with Dewey, it is fundamental to Piagetian theory, and it has resurfaced recently in the guise of "situated cognition," i.e., enabling the learner to ground their cognitive understanding in their action in a situation. That is not achieved through attending alone. With much less emphasis on "practicing," and still less on discussion and articulation, as shown in the final totals for each activity above, the traditional balance of student learning activity does not match the demands derived from educational theory.

Shifting the balance of student study activities

If we were to rethink that balance, redistribute student learning time in a different way, what would be a more effective balance, and how would that be achieved? Using the conversational framework for a comparative analysis of teaching media was useful, as I said, for showing that no one medium could cover all that was necessary. But it did show that computer-based media were capable of supporting the more practice-oriented aspects of the learning process that the traditional methods did not. Incorporating the new media into the range of methods used could therefore change the balance, and redistribute student learning time in a way that would better match the rhetoric we all espouse.

To the standard methods of university teaching we could add computer-assisted learning (CAL) to represent any form of computer-based teaching program, audio-graphics to represent synchronous conferencing, computer-mediated conferencing (CMC) as the asynchronous form of conferencing, and interactive computer-marked assignments (ICMA) to cover those aspects of assessment that can be handled adequately by a program. The same total student study time can then be redistributed over a wider range of teaching methods, resulting in a more balanced distribution across the key types of learning activity, as shown again in the final totals for each line.


"Attending" is reduced primarily through moving time spent in lectures to other methods of study. Time spent on tutorials is the same, but smaller groups are assumed to allow a more even balance of time between "attending" and "discussing." "Practicing" is increased by introducing more on-line forms to replace some of the classroom-based forms (e.g., simulated experiments using CAL to replace laboratories; audio-graphics exercises to replace problem classes). "Articulating" is increased slightly by the introduction of computer-mediated conference (CMC) to offer an asynchronous form of student seminar. Interactive computer-marked assignments increase opportunities for student articulation of their ideas without increasing staff assessment time. Computer-assisted learning, if it makes proper use of the technology, engages students in manipulation of data, experimentation, testing, analysis--all the activities appropriate to situating the theory in practice. Attending to the presentation of information or ideas often forms a part of these programs, but the emphasis is on practice. Similarly, audio-graphics, as a communication technology will allow the student to engage in a group-telephone discussion, but in the context of doing some interactive task, sharing their screen with their interlocutor, whether teacher or student. The virtue of audio-graphics as a teaching medium is that both speech and graphics can be recorded automatically for replay by either the participating students, or other students. In this way, the value of the vicarious aspect of participation in the tutorial, when the student is attending to the discussion rather than taking part in it, can be recapitulated for many other students than those taking part in the small group itself.

Computer-mediated conferencing, creates a tutorial form that offers a substantially higher proportion of the total time to student input (the ratio can be as high as 10:1 student:tutor input) significantly different from the typical small-group tutorial. Students still spend time attending, but the form of attention is importantly different when there is the opportunity to take part. In this asynchronous text-based medium, the moment to react or to make your point, is never lost. It is always possible for the student to come back and say something. The students can take their time, and they do. That may be why their proportional input is so much greater in computer-mediated tutorials than in face-to-face ones. So even though there is a lot of attending as well as discussing and articulating, it is likely that the quality of that attention could be better than it is for a tutorial in which the student typically knows that they will say very little.

Finally, instead of relying solely on tutor-marked problem-sheets, or essays, or projects, computer-based assessment can work quite well for some areas. This is not an area that has attracted a great deal of research and development in recent years, but it could have the greatest benefit of all from the student's point of view. It is possible to design tasks that are both challenging and genuinely testing, and have the further advantage of giving the student immediate feedback, rather than having to wait for the tutor's delayed mark.

From this comparison we can see that if we begin with the student's point of view, considering what would be the optimal distribution of their time, then we can achieve a more effective balance between active learning and mere attending by introducing some of the new methods and media. To illustrate the kind of activity I am referring to, if discussants wish, I shall later post references to Web pages showing some examples from programs currently under development at the Open University.

Exploiting the technology

There are still too many examples of educational multimedia that fail to exploit its capability to offer interactive practice of a subject. Multimedia has given us some impressive presentational facilities, but that has remained the focus. The adaptive capability of the computer behind it has been forgotten. It is not enough to say that in this program the student can "call up this" and "click on that"--the proper question is "what are they required to do?" It should be a "user-active" medium. Instead, students are too often confronted with a kind of tyranny of choice--"you can do this," "you can do that." Yes, but what ought I do if I want to understand it? The novice needs guidance. It is a derogation of responsibility for the teacher to offer nothing more than choices. It is our responsibility to know what it takes to learn, and to provide the environment that supports that.

Information technology has led to an alarming expectation that it may be possible to educate students by simply linking them up to the World Wide Web: give them access to information. The notion is often accompanied by the rhetoric of being student-oriented, or learner-centered; it even shades into consumer choice on occasion--the student as consumer in the free market of ideas. But information is to knowledge as bricks are to buildings. It is as absurd to try and solve the problems of education by giving people access to information as it would be to solve the housing problem by giving people access to bricks. Part of the point of an education is to give people the skills and understanding to enable them to handle information. Before having unlimited access to it you have to know what to do with it, how to select, how to evaluate and critique it, how to recognize what is missing, how to generate what you need. The Internet is not irrelevant to our students. It is a useful source of information, but that is all. If you were to assess what our students need most to help them in their studies, a "useful source of information" would come fairly far down the list.

So we must not begin with what the new technology offers. Examining instead what students need, we are led to a quite different analysis of how new technology can help. Most importantly, it should (a) give students more opportunities to engage with the practice of their subject; and (b) give them more opportunities to discuss and articulate their ideas. As student numbers increase (which creates a natural pressure on reducing these essential aspects of learning) it may be that new technology provides the only hope of giving students what they really need. I think it is possible to demonstrate (but here I can only do it with reference to the examples available on our Web pages) that it can do something interesting for students in precisely those aspects of the learning process where their current learning environment is most impoverished.

Diana Laurillard
The Open University
United Kingdom


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