Defining my role of a university teacher

During the spring of 2019, I participated in a newly designed pedagogics course organized by our faculty. The course made me reflect on my role as a university teacher. We don’t think much about it. But what we teachers and professor do every day in our offices, lecture rooms and meetings is what at the end of the day makes up a university. This course made me think about how I can best contribute to our university’s prosperity and quality in my everyday conduct. My conclusion is that I should be more than a lecturer.

The course, organized for the first time in the spring of 2019, is intended to be a standard module for our faculty’s teaching staff. It is a smaller course than the standard pedagogics training program that all new employees in teaching roles must attend once. The course is planned to run every semester as a way of refreshing the pedagogics skills of our teaching staff and professors. I was lucky to get a seat during the pilot run, just six months after I got hired as a fulltime associated processor.

The course is set up as a peer evaluation exercise. The participants present a class they teach and prepare a plan for peer observations. For each participant, all other participants are to visit one or more lectures and observe the lecturer for one or two hours, at the same time writing feedback notes. Participants then hold reflection meetings where we give each other oral feedback.

I liked the idea of peer evaluation a lot. I also like the instructor’s use of an empirical framework for student feedback as a backdrop. This is a well-known framework (which I had not heard of!), and I found it extremely useful to understand what good feedback is. In fact, I am currently doing an evaluation of how I give feedback to my students in my courses, based on the recommendations in this framework.

I also liked a lot that there was a good deal of reflection during the course, both individual and group-based. The text you are reading is a final reflection report from the course. I think in general we (both teachers and students) do too little reflection nowadays. As a result, we lose the proper reflection skills needed for analytical thinking. Therefore, let us insert as many reflection exercises in our courses as we can when we design them!

Of course, not everything about the course was perfect. One major disappointment for me was the fact that the course was (or became?) very lecture centric. Our observations were of lectures. Our (and the instructor’s) feedback was mainly about how we lectured in an auditorium. We received feedback on how we opened and closed a lecture, how we used our body language and our movements in the room during the lectures, how we engaged with students during discussions, how we used lecturing tools etc. My problem was that I didn’t focus much on lectures in my courses. My courses (TDT4140 and IT3010) are both group-based, project-based, and problem-centered with portfolio evaluation. I use lectures too, but the courses consist of more than lectures. During the course, I tried to present one of my courses to the other participants. I tried to show how I use practical group projects, reflection reports, demonstrations, digital tools, etc. However, I felt that I did not get much feedback from the others about my course because, unfortunately, they never saw me perform a lecture.

It was through this lack of feedback and a perceived oddity of the portfolio-based setup that I started thinking about my role as a university teacher, and how my university management thinks about this role. After all, this pedagogics course was just developed. It was meant to satisfy our faculty’s future pedagogics needs and improve the quality of our teaching. Does the management in my faculty think that teaching staff should mainly be good at lecturing and nothing else? During the course, I came to know that 80% of all teaching in my university consists of chiefly lectures. But is this also what we want in the future?

I am of another opinion when it comes to my role as a university teacher. I was a student in this same university during the 90s. The last 2-3 decades have no doubt seen tremendous changes in society and technology that should affect our teaching:

  • In the 90s, the only sources of information to me as a student were the textbook and the lectures. Lectures played a central role as a place where we could get a face-to-face presentation of the subject and ask questions. Students now have access to information that was unimaginable back then. Search for “continuous integration” (a subject that I teach in one of my courses) and you get access to hundreds of blogs, wikis, podcasts, video presentations, online lectures etc., many of them of very high quality made freely available online.
  • In the 90s, the teacher was the only expert available. The teacher had the luxury of telling the only truth that was going to be accessible to the students. Nowadays, students have online access to world-leading experts in any field. The “facts” that I try to convey in my lectures are often challenged by my students. Experts (usually much better known than me) convey “alternative facts” online all the time.
  • In the 90s, we did not have many digital tools for teaching. The main channel to exchange information with students was face-to-face during lectures and on paper. Now we have access to a host of instruments such as learning management systems, MOOC platforms, social media, blogs, YouTube, etc. These tools provide benefits but can also be challenging to use correctly.
  • In the 90s students were not digital natives. They would sit down a whole day in a reading room or the library with one textbook in front of them, and not get bored. Surviving a two-hour lecture was no big feat back then. The new generation is used to multitasking, rapid changes in technology, mobile devices, etc. In our teaching, we rarely recognize this huge behavioral change among our students.
  • In the 90s the courses were small. It was easier to provide face-to-face feedback to each student. Now, most bachelor courses in our department have more than a hundred students, some even thousands. One of my classes had 500 students this year, the other 110. Delivering high-quality feedback to each student becomes impossible if we rely on face-to-face channels alone.
  • In the 90s students studied first and then went to work. Now we are seeing students who work while they study, who come back to study after having worked for a while, who take online course, who are good at keeping professionally updated online, and who build their carriers iteratively based on what they study and vice versa. We have a larger variation of students from multiple disciplines. And society has other demands on universities regarding the students we educate.
  • In the 90s we did not have TED talks. When you see enough polished talks designed by public relations professionals and delivered by world-leading professional lecturers wearing Armani suits, the humble lectures that I hold in my jeans and t-shirt, with loads of text on each slide and no animation and no charisma from my side, becomes a boring experience for most human beings let alone my impatient students.

The above list demonstrates why I found it strange that the course I took, newly design for our future, was still so much focused on lecturing techniques. Am I, as a university teacher, mainly a lecturer? Will I also be a lecturer in the next ten years? I don’t think so. I believe university teachers, both now and in the future, need to think of a multitude of skills where lecturing is only one. I acknowledge that the importance of lectures depends partly on the subject area, academic culture, etc. However, I think the above points apply to any subject area, and we should not anymore rely on lecturing as our sole teaching instrument. Some skills that I feel I need in my daily work as a teacher of two portfolio-based courses are the following:

  • Designing courses: Course designs vary from designs consisting of two hours of weekly lectures supplemented with voluntary exercises, to designs that are fully portfolio-based and rely on personalized feedback. As a university teacher, I need to learn about different designs, the research done on each design, how different designs can work for my intended learning objectives, the practical implications of choosing one design rather than another, etc.
  • Evaluating courses: As a teacher, I need to know what effects my interventions have. I, therefore, need to approach course evaluation in a research-based manner. I need to know how to evaluate my course, but also understand how others evaluate similar courses and why. This implies I need to have access to an international network of teachers in my subject area.
  • Delivering high-quality feedback: With large courses, consisting of hundreds and thousands of students, I need to know how to provide feedback that is personalized, and that leads to better learning for each student. I need to be able to teach my course staff to ensure proper feedback to students because I cannot possibly do it all by myself.
  • Knowing how to use digital media in teaching: As part of the course design, I need to know what digital media, among hundreds out there, is best for my purposes. I need to know how digital media can be used to deliver the best feedback, where to find good sources online, and how digital tools and media affects learning and course design.
  • Managing people: Large courses are delivered by groups of teachers and assistants. The need for assistance is highest in the large portfolio- and problem-based courses (I have around thirty assistants in one of my courses). I need to think like a manager when hiring and training assistants, listening to feedback from assistants, coordinating the day-to-day work, etc.
  • Applying open innovation. With the internet and all the connectivity out there, teachers need to stop considering their courses as closed systems belonging to the university and the faculty they teach at. We need to become better at drawing upon an international pool of expertise as part of our courses. At the same time, we need to be self-conscious about the strength in our own research and teaching that we can promote and offer to other teachers elsewhere.
  • Lecturing: Yes, lecturing is also a skill that we need to learn and improve. Lecturing is still a very efficient way of making human contact with students, even when there are five hundred of them in the lecture hall. Lecturing is also important to convey the latest knowledge to our students, knowledge that is presented in academic conferences we attend but which is not yet made available in an easily graspable way. But we should not choose lectures as the default instrument just because we did it in the past.

Not every teacher will good at all the above. We need to think about groups of teachers, maybe each specializing in one aspect of teaching.

I enjoyed a lot attending this course and would recommend it to my colleagues. I also want to challenge our faculty management to think holistically about teaching. The courses we attend convey messages. I am not sure the message from this course was the right for NTNU’s future.