Higher Education Monitor 10: Teaching Learning and beyond Formal Access

CHE > Media and Publications > Higher Education Monitor > Higher Education Monitor 10: Teaching Learning and beyond Formal Access
August, 2010

This issue of the Higher Education Monitor presents research done in the context of the Finland-South Africa Cooperation Agreement, which ran between 2005 and 2008 under the auspices of the Department of Education. The Department of Education approached the Council on Higher Education to participate in the cooperation agreement with a bid for funding in the area of quality assurance. The funds obtained were disbursed in two broad project areas. One focused on supporting the development of quality assurance systems in merged and historically disadvantaged institutions. The other focused on supporting projects geared to the improvement of teaching and learning at institutions which did not fall in either of the other two groups. Funds in the improvement of teaching and learning stream were allocated in the form of competitive grants.

Several universities applied for and obtained grants in this project area and all of them have produced interesting and innovative work. This publication is but one example of the kind of work produced at our universities in order to improve teaching and learning. We are hopeful that in the course of 2010-11, we will be able to publish other examples of relevant work in the area of teaching and learning done in contexts other than the Finland-South Africa Agreement.

This publication is organised in six chapters which reflect collaborative research done by specialists in education and academics responsible for teaching and learning of subjects offered at different academic units at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits): the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management, the Faculty of Science and the School of Education. Chapters One to Five focus on research conducted on actual assessment practices in large classes and the impact that the introduction of alternative approaches had in making assessment not only more valid, reliable, effective and manageable, but also in making assessment a part of students' learning. Chapter Six explores the manner in which assessment that is text-based (essays in this case) respond to the concept of assessment for learning. This chapter grapples with a range of issues about the acquisition of academic knowledge and the assumptions underpinning the essay questions and the answers provided by students.

All the chapters in this publication present theory-informed research that could be transferred to other contexts, illuminate similar problems, or confirm variations on innovative practice. Above all, this publication confirms that teaching and learning, far from being common-sense activities, require specialist knowledge which is theoretically informed and technically supported. It confirms that the improvement of teaching and learning can take place in the interstices between specialist disciplinary knowledge, skills and values, and pedagogic discourse and practice, and that those interstices need to be purposefully looked for and opened up at institutional level.

From the point of view of higher education policy, this issue of the Higher Education Monitor is about student access and quality. Every piece of higher education policy since 1996 has set access as one of the most important goals for the higher education system in the democratic transition. Given the history of South Africa, access means not only more students in higher education, but a student population that reflects the demography of the country. Important research on higher education has focused on the issue of access, indicating that whatever gains have been made in growing the size of the higher education system, our participation rates are unsatisfactory and our throughput and dropout rates a reason to wonder about the extent of the deracialisation of the higher education system and its overall effectiveness (Bunting, 1994; Cloete et al., 2002; CHE, 2004 and Scott et al., 2007). The Higher Education Quality Committee's (HEQC) institutional audits are showing that in the area of teaching and learning, growing access (undoubtedly a success in the first 15 years of democracy) has created a number of new challenges for higher education institutions, which range from the suitability of their educational infrastructure to the suitability of their pedagogic approaches. Yet, higher education institutions, their management and academic staff are not the only ones tested by the (insufficient) expansion of the higher education system. The 'problem of access' also questions the facile responses provided in the public (social and political) discourse, which often only sees access in terms of universities reluctant to fulfil their duties to society and underprepared black students who are not ready for university education.

The research gathered in this publication provides a sharp example of the two dimensions of access identified over 20 years ago by Wally Morrow and which constituted a constant focus of his professional reflection: formal access and epistemological access (Morrow, 2007). The inevitable consequence of expanding access and achieving greater equity in our society has been growth in the number of student enrolments. Large classes are the outcome of the commitment to formal access. This has meant that all higher education institutions, to a greater or lesser extent, have been confronted with lecturers' difficulties in teaching large classes, particularly at first-year level. In this context, frustration among students and lecturers is coupled with a wish for smaller classes in which teaching and learning is regarded as more effective. As Morrow noted, not only is class size unlikely to shrink, but also, all mass higher education systems have had to learn to teach large classes. Against this backdrop, he wondered why it was it so difficult for us in South Africa to think of large classes as a pedagogic problem to be solved and not as a developing country aberration and the first step in the dropping of standards. As the research presented here shows, it is possible to teach and assess large classes without dumbing down content and skills, but this requires concerted interventions. It requires academic learning and the support of subject specialists in order to think about the syllabus pedagogically. This, in turn, requires institutional awareness of the need to invest in educational infrastructure and human resources as well as of the need to acknowledge and value the demands that effective teaching makes of academics, including the professionalisation of teaching at higher education level. While the institutional audits conducted by the HEQC show instances of institutions struggling to rise to the occasion, they also show important examples of individual and institutional efforts to deal with large classes in innovative and professional manners. The research presented here is but one example of this. The other area of concern in Morrow's writing is epistemological access, or 'access to the knowledge that universities distribute', and although this does overlap with the challenges posed by the teaching of large classes, it is not necessarily the same. Epistemological access is a political as well as an educational issue in that it turns the spotlight both on to unconscious and unquestioned processes of concept formation and knowledge acquisition, and on to the assumptions that inform the manner in which teaching at university level takes place. The construction of students as autonomous subjects who, by virtue of having access to higher education, are going to actualise their potential making the most of the opportunities offered to them, is common to many universities in the country. However, statistics on student success and interviews with students and lecturers show that the notion of the autonomous subject is not helping to provide a fruitful student experience at universities and gets in the way of helping students in the process of achieving epistemological access (Boughey, 2007; CHE, 2010). It is in relation to epistemological access where the greatest work remains to be done in the country; and this work, as most of the literature in the field suggests, involves a different way of looking at teaching and learning at university level, greater resourcing, a refocus on the centrality of the curriculum and a greater understanding of the importance of research on teaching and learning.

As indicated earlier, this issue of the Higher Education Monitor is also about quality. In its Founding Document the HEQC stated its commitment to 'a quality-driven higher education system that contributes to socio-economic development, social justice and innovative scholarship in South Africa' (CHE, 2001:9). Only with the confluence of formal and epistemological access will higher education be able to realise its part in bringing about social justice to South Africa.

The promotion of an understanding of quality education that holds together equity and standards and the support of higher education institutions in their efforts to achieve greater equity and quality are an important part of the quality assurance work of the Council on Higher Education. It is hoped that this publication will be of use to academics, education specialists and higher education managers, that it will generate debate and, possibly, enthusiasm for reviewing and renewing teaching and learning practices.

Finally, I would like to thank Prof. Yael Shalem and her colleagues at Wits for their work on this publication. In them I thank all lecturers and managers at higher education institutions whose commitment to access continues unabated in the face of many systemic and institutional difficulties and whose work, we hope, will be the focus of further publications aimed at the promotion of quality teaching and learning.