Friday, 11 June 2010

H800: Week 17 – Activity 4- Oversold and underused?

Reading Cuban (2001) Chapter 4, 'New technologies in old universities'.

This chapter referred to the use of technology at Stanford University in California. Stanford is one of the top five US universities and may be described as an elite institution. It receives huge endowments and is undoubtedly a very wealthy institution. It has always invested heavily in technology and has made available high quality technological resources for teaching, research and administration since the 1960s. The basic message of the chapter is that, despite the availability of cutting-edge technology throughout the period described, the basic method of teaching remains largely unchanged, i.e. the lecture.

The description is set against a background in which the following factors are clearly relevant:

  • Large and increasing undergraduate student numbers, which means that lectures are widely viewed as the most cost-effective way of conveying information to the students.
  • Academic staff who see research (and associated publications) rather than teaching, as the main driver for career progression
  • The use of postgraduate students as teaching assistants involved in both the delivery of the course and assessment of students.

These factors (or at least the first two) will be familiar to many people working in HE.

Despite the dominance of the lecture, the chapter did describe various examples of more innovative approaches to teaching which sought to avoid large group sizes and exploit the possibilities offered by technologies. These included such approaches as problem-base learning.


The first point to note is that the chapter was published nine years ago, and was therefore probably based on the situation as it existed at least ten years ago. Since that time at my own University, I have certainly seen the technologies associated with teaching move from the margins to the mainstream. Around the year 2000 we were experimenting with student intranets, and it was possible to book a data projector and PC to show a PowerPoint presentation. Within a few years every single teaching room on the campus was equipped with a networked computer console and ceiling-mounted projector, and every module is supported (to a greater or lesser extent) by a VLE (Blackboard).

So - is this an indication that things have actually changed in the decade since this chapter was published? Well – not necessarily. Firstly I would say that, despite the widespread access to technologies, the lecture remains the basic approach used for the delivery of a course. Admittedly, the lecture will now be delivered using PowerPoint rather than a chalkboard/whiteboard or overhead projector, but we can hardly claim that we are utilising the available technologies to improve the quality of the student experience. Secondly, as I think I've mentioned before, many Blackboard sites are little more than an online location in which to store the module handbook.

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