Adelaide VC: small-group learning is the key to success

Warren Bebbington says it is not surprising that students are unhappy with their experience at Australian universities. The University of Adelaide
Overcrowded Australian universities must find a way to promote small-group learning if they are to revive education standards, says the incoming vice-chancellor at the University of Adelaide.

In his inaugural address, to be delivered tonight, Warren Bebbington says few campuses have grown to accommodate soaring enrolments. Meanwhile, pressure to climb the university ranking tables has diverted attention away from teaching to research, “for most such tables rank research rather than teaching, which they cannot seem to measure directly”.

“Not surprisingly, students are unhappy with their experience, expressing in the national Course Experience Questionnaires and other surveys often modest levels of overall satisfaction,” Professor Bebbington says.

“Fundamentally, we need to affirm the vital importance of small-group learning and close encounter with a teacher in high-quality university learning. By this I mean finding a place in our courses for the self-renewing, open-ended collaboration Wilhelm von Humboldt described — the oral seminar or interactive group encounter where students take part in content design, peer assessment, and quality evaluation and where the teacher is a guide and partner rather than a lecturer.”

More than one million students are enrolled at Australian universities across the country, and the number is set to rise following a move by the Federal Government this year to uncap places. Under the new “demand-driven system”, universities will receive funding for as many students as they can enrol.

The average student-to-staff ratio is 20:1, and classes of 1,000 or even 1,500 students are not unknown in first-year subjects, Professor Bebbington says.

The former Deputy Vice-Chancellor of University Affairs at Melbourne University says it is crucial that universities recapture the excitement of discovery in undergraduate programs: “There should be some chance even for the first-year undergraduate to experience learning through independent inquiry and sharing their findings in a small group.

"Every course needs to contribute in some way to producing independent, critical, tolerant and open-minded thinking.”

Some first-year classes are crammed with up to 1,500 students. AAP/Julian Smith

Universities also need to develop e-learning resources that better support discovery and collaboration, Professor Bebbington says. “Beyond presentation software like PowerPoint we need easily-usable design tools and software that enable interactive discussion environments … These will enrich face-to-face teaching, and enhance flexible learning, improving a university’s ability to cut loose from set class timetables to serve the growing number of students whose work commitments or geographical location prevent them from attendance.

"Inevitably we will also need to intensify academic staff development in teaching, to equip staff with small group, collaborative teaching strategies and new IT skills.”

It is also important that universities share the excitement of discovery with the public, “by more often placing our leading academics on the public lecture podium or in the media to speak of their work”.

No single model is right for all students, Professor Bebbington says. As they move towards 40% participation rates, Australian universities will need to adapt to students of varying aptitudes, achievements and interests. “And in any case, ratios of 8:1 are unlikely to be seen again. How then do we simulate the small cohort experience where it is appropriate in the midst of a diverse, mass enrolment?”

Some universities are already trying to address this - at UC-Santa Barbara, for example, there are dual paths through undergraduate degrees. “Most students choose from amongst majors taught in the customary classes. A smaller group, having met additional entry requirements, take independent work from the outset, working closely with full professors. Santa Barbara calls it ‘graduate school for undergraduates’. It does not let all have a taste of small cohorts, however.

"Elsewhere content from massive open online courses is freeing staff time for closer contact with students.

"Ultimately, governments need to sanction a broader variety of missions from universities, instead of the single, research-intensive mould. Universities elsewhere choose their characteristics based on their location and their environment: in the USA over half the 4,400 degree-granting institutions focus entirely on teaching.

"Australian universities need to be able to choose where they wish to place themselves on the continuum between teaching and research, between transmitting known knowledge and discovering the unknown, between short-term applied and long-term basic research, between cultivating students’ character and deepening their specific expertise, as well as between building international scholarly reputation and building national identity, between serving the professions as they exist and changing their social shape, between partnering with the community and standing apart as its independent critic.”