“Contact with tutors”, not surprisingly, is one of the top responses from students when asked about what they value from their university. Given our biographies as learners, the type of contact we are normally most familiar with in educational settings is face to face: we know how it works and what to expect.
Easy and regular access to tutors (and peers) can, however, take different forms, as can learning experiences on a university campus. A lecture, for example, can be incredibly inspiring. Some of my most memorable ‘learning moments’ happened during lectures. Equally, a lecture can be the most impersonal, disengaging and even alienating experience. An online learning environment can also be gripping or isolating for participants, depending on variables such as the quality of the design and the skill of the online tutor. However:
Student-tutor contact can, in many senses, be more individual and personal in an online module than in a campus-taught one. Moreover, ‘asynchronous’ student-tutor interaction allows the tutor time to think, come up with more succinctly formulated answers to questions, and has the great advantage that both parties have a written record of the communication.
Maria Schilstra, n.d., University of Hertfordshire
It may well be that by “contact with tutors” students actually refer to “personalisation”. We can achieve higher levels of personalisation and individualisation in a number of ways, not necessarily by increasing our demands on physical space. In other words, it is possible to teach better and teach smarter, even on a smaller campus. The new Waterside campus will make a more effective and efficient use of space.
Waterside is an additional lever to make us think now, together, about what our teaching and learning practice will look like in a couple of years’ time. We need to redesign, pilot and refine things well before we move. Will our teaching be better and smarter? For example, what would happen to our provision, our students and ourselves if we:
… gradually reduced the amount of face-to-face teaching?
… took deliberate steps to increase the quality of what we do in face-to-face settings?
… developed our competencies as designers of excellent, fit-for-purpose online courses?
… became highly skilled in online teaching, assessment and e-moderating?
Would this mean the disappearance of the traditional lecture, seminar, lab or studio-based session? Absolutely not. We need to identify what blends of approaches and modes of study are appropriate in each case. However, we must be prepared to address our students’ needs and enable them to succeed in the 21st century – with or without Waterside. Yesterday’s logic will not suffice to tackle this challenge.
The University of Northampton is well placed to pursue the above agenda: many colleagues have the knowledge, skill and motivation to scaffold and promote this change, increase learner personalisation and thrive in the new environment. There are support and development interventions in place. We have opportunities to inform, shape and benefit from the changes ahead: let’s engage with this process now.
Professor Alejandro Armellini
Director, Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
University of Northampton