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In an increasingly competitive higher education market, improving the quality of teaching and learning is clearly vital – but the structural and cultural barriers to change remain formidable. We asked several of the sector’s leading experts, all speakers at the Future of Learning in Higher Education Summit in February, what they consider to be the greatest challenges in improving teaching & learning in Australia.
“The greatest challenge, in my view, is raising the profile and recognition of high quality teaching and learning in Australian universities,” says Alec Cameron, DVC (Education) at the University of Western Australia. “The ability to identify and assess quality teaching, beyond the important but limited capability of student satisfaction surveys, is important to providing a consistent basis for recognising and rewarding academic performance and leadership in this area. When staff see that their careers can be progressed by excelling at teaching and learning, then it will be easier to advance the adoption of good, evidence-based teaching and learning practices.”
Geoffrey Crisp, DVC (Academic) and Vice President of RMIT University, agrees that cultivating engaged, motivated teaching staff is the key to improved learning outcomes – and argues that the current expectation that staff excel across teaching, research, industry engagement and administration is not realistic. “We need to allow diversity within the academic workload, and have as our guiding principle that academics should be excellent in at least one area of their performance and good at the others,” he says. “Academics should be able to negotiate variations in their performance so that they are accountable for excellence in a particular domain for a period of, say, five years and then have the option of renewing or changing that domain thereafter.”
Furthermore, all teaching staff should receive active and targeted support to help them design the most effective learning experiences for their students, says Alison Sheridan, PVC (Academic) at the University of New England. “With the leaps and bounds being made in technology,” she says, “we need to ensure our staff are supported in developing their understanding of effective pedagogy.” Marina Harvey, an OLT National Fellow based at Macquarie University, highlights the particular need to support sessional staff, who do a large proportion of the teaching but are often left out of professional development initiatives.
Another key challenge is student transition and retention, particularly of low-SES and low-ATAR students. “As gains are made with inclusion, issues of quality surface – most recently, issues of time to degree and college completion,” says international expert Diane Lee, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education at the University of Maryland (Baltimore County). “It is not sufficient to open our doors and then have students leave prior to earning a degree. Low completion rates are not a math problem, they are a moral problem. Student success underlies all we are doing.”
Ultimately, says Alec Cameron, “good learning practices will be most positively affected by good teaching practices, which will motivate and inspire students to engage with their education.” Perhaps, as Patrick Crookes, coordinator of the OLT’s Transforming Practice Programme and Director of the Wollongong Academy for Tertiary Teaching and Learning Excellence, puts it, the secret to brighter learning outcomes is “getting academics to believe that teaching really is valued, in Australian universities. No, I mean really valued…!”