Enhancing Learning and Teaching Beyond Good Intentions

Addressing the lack of recognition for the value of effective teaching requires more than making participation in teaching enhancement yet another requirement for academics, writes EUA Director, Higher Education Policy, Michael Gaebel in Inside Higher Ed.

In Europe, attention to higher education learning and teaching has been growing in recent years, both in policy and in practice.The 2018 Bologna Process Paris Communiqué devotes a whole section to the development of learning and teaching. And there is significant change underway at universities, as confirmed by the vast majority of the 303 higher education institutions that responded to the European University Association’s (EUA) 2018 Trends survey. Over the past decade, the use of learning outcomes has increased, new approaches to learning and teaching, including digital enhancement, have been explored, and learning and teaching centres have been established or reinforced. There is also more strategic attention from institutional leadership, with vice-rectors for learning and teaching taking responsibility for institution-wide development and coordination.

Overall, there seems to be convergence on key developments across different types of institutions,with different missions,and across the European Higher Education Area, which covers 48 countries extending from Ireland to Kazakhstan and from Iceland to Malta. A European learning and teaching community is just discovering itself and has started to grow beyond institutional and national levels, especially through events such as EUA’s European Learning & Teaching Forum. Overall, there is a rather optimistic tone that positive change is underway – change that, unlike in the past, is not due primarily to top-down reforms.

From data collected through the Trends 2018 survey, and other sources, it is not easy to assess how transformative and sustainable these developments really are;they often take place only in parts of the institution and only some of the students seem to benefit from pedagogic innovation or from structures and resources supporting learning and teaching. This may be linked to insufficient resources, lack of funding in particular, but also to the diverse needs of the different disciplines. Moreover, learning and teaching innovation tends to be a bottom-up process, and needs time to be tested and embraced by the entire institution-also to ensure quality. For example, problem-based learning raised quite some concern a decade ago, whereas today it is widely accepted. Today, it is the flipped classroom that requires verification, as well as a better definition through practice.

Data on pedagogical staff development indicate another puzzling finding—until a few years ago, in most systems,teacher training was either unknown,or not considered at all. Currently, 70% of institutions offer voluntary staff development courses and 30% of institutions offer compulsory ones. This could be read as a success. However, it appears that there has been no progress as the 2015 Trends survey results show exactly the same figures. Institutional representatives point to the dilemma: voluntary courses are highly appreciated by those who attend them. This is often commented as “preaching to the converted”. Staff enhancement is typically compulsory for teaching “debutants” who tend to welcome it and for newly-hired staff. This suggests it could gradually become mainstream, but might take sometime.

One way of changing this is to enhance the importance of teaching enhancement, such as requiring pedagogical development as a requirement for permanent employment and career development.There are some systems and institutions that develop such approaches. This could help to tackle a lack of recognition of teaching in career development, which is what Trends 2018 respondents across Europe identify as the second biggest obstacle in the development of learning and teaching, right after alack of funding.

This could be quite a sea change to higher education institutions and the careers of academics, and therefore should not be taken lightly. Addressing the lack of recognition for the value of effective teaching requires more than making participation in teaching enhancement yet another requirement for academics. It would require parity for the esteem given to research and education and a commitment to diverse academic careers, meaning research, teaching and also the “third mission”, as the recent EUA Learning & Teaching Thematic Peer Group came to conclude. This is challenging, but it is likely what universities must do, given the growing emphasis on their contribution to society and the role they play in technological and social innovation.

This editorial was originally published on Inside Higher Ed, on 14 February 2019.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Michael Gaebel

Michael Gaebel is Director of Higher Education Policy at the European University Association.


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