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Reduced scope of the Office of Teaching and Learning should focus us on what works

By Nicholas Hawkins - posted Friday, 24 July 2015


The Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne recently announced a reduced round of grants from his Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT). He also called for a new university-based institute that will be focused on "substantial sector-wide initiatives". It is expected that this will result in fewer if not smaller grants.

Over two decades, OLT and its predecessors have sought to "develop and drive innovation in higher education teaching and learning", both by recognising the brilliance of Australian educators, and by providing targeted project funding.

In particular they have sought to promote collaborative initiatives that cross institutional and sometimes disciplinary boundaries. In many cases, such initiatives have led to important and effective innovations, as well as resources and publications. However the scale and duration of OLT project funding has meant that these initiatives are rarely sustained much beyond the term of funding, and thus resources and knowledge are lost.

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It is hard to see how the new, institutional-based and slightly poorer OLT will have a better chance of creating and maintaining sustainable programs.

Interestingly the universities have been muted in their response to these funding cuts, occurring as they have to the one external body that specifically supports "substantial sector-wide initiatives".

Teaching revenue is the lifeblood of universities, and they currently spend considerable amounts of money on internal programs to improve teaching and learning. Yet those same institutions appear to have much less interest in funding collaborative approaches to educational innovation.

If the government thinks it's good for universities, why don't universities think the same? Why don't universities, as a group, invest in platforms that support collaboration in teaching and learning, just as they do for high-end research? Perhaps this latest announcement from Minister Pyne is an opportunity for the university sector to reassess its approach to improving teaching.

Just consider this: every year hundreds of biology professors all over Australia walk into their first year Biology classes to teach essentially the same course, based on knowledge drawn from the same history, and stored in the same textbooks. Paradoxically, they will deliver learning experiences that range from the exhilarating to the banal.

But what if all of them could deliver a learning experience that is currently achieved by the top 10 per cent of their peers - an experience that engages, challenges and stimulates their students. If all teachers had access to the superior pedagogy and resources of their most effective peers, then everyone would benefit – and not just the student.

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Taxpayers would no longer be paying for the nation-wide production of duplicated resources; universities could maximize the quality and efficiency of their teaching; and teachers would have more time to meet the needs of their students, be that revisiting basic principles with those who struggling, or challenging and extending those ready for higher order concepts and skills.

It's not just a pipe dream. Right now Australia is leading the world in building one such collaborative platform, where academics make their teaching resources available to colleagues, either to use as is, or to adapt as required. That platform and the community that it supports is known as the Biomedical Education Skills and Training (BEST) Network. It is powered by technology created by the Australian edtech company Smart Sparrow, the same technology that Bill Gates recently chose to develop his new science education initiative.

The BEST Network is a world first. It is a teaching network run by academics for academics. It provides academics in any participating institution with the legal, ethical and financial framework needed to share or access courseware and learning design tools of the highest quality. The adaptive nature of those tools means academics can easily alter content to ensure it is relevant to the context and needs of their students, and their institution. The cloud-based nature of the platform provides the accessibility and scalability needed to respond quickly to current and future demand.

In this way, the Network supports a sustainable model of academic crowd-sourcing that frees teachers from the constraints of their institutional silos, to the benefit of student, teacher and institution alike.

There is no reason why this transparent and collaborative approach cannot be applied more widely, or why universities should not embrace it as an effective way to strengthen their own standing, both nationally and internationally. In a period of diminishing Commonwealth funding for educational innovation, it is time for universities to stop seeing themselves as competitors, and join together to create the collaborative platforms that will support the next exciting education revolution.

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About the Author

Prof. Nicholas Hawkins is Head of the BEST Network, and Professor of Innovative Technology in Medical Education at the University of Queensland.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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