Sunday, 12 February 2012

Thinking about tuition fees

I've been thinking a lot about tuition fees lately. I wrote a blog post a few weeks back about the potential impact of tuition fees on part time students, but I've also been wondering how the new system will affect higher education in general. 

I've just watched an excellent film on Vimeo called "I melt the glass with my forehead" which really examines the whole issue in some detail. I've embedded the video below and although it's fifty minutes long I think it's well worth a watch for anyone interested in the subject.

"I melt the glass with my forehead" from Heraclitus Pictures on Vimeo.

Personally, I think about the issue from a number of different perspectives. Firstly I wonder what impact tuition fees would have had on my life if they had been around when I entered higher education. Mine wasn't a traditional route into HE. I left school without A-Levels and went to work. I attended college on a day-release basis to gain an ONC qualification. Then, after about six years in work I decided at the age of 24 to return to full time education to gain a HND. I didn't have to pay any tuition fees, and I even received a small maintenance grant which was a real help to me in making that difficult decision to give up paid employment. The HND enabled me to progress on to a degree and subsequently to become professionally qualified. I'm fairly sure that if I'd had to pay tuition fees and saddle myself with a significant debt, I wouldn't have done it. I can't help thinking that mature students will be disproportionally affected by the the new fees, and many of them will simply be put off higher education. That is a great shame.

Secondly, I think about tuition fees as a parent. I have two teenage children. Only a few years ago I would have confidently expected both of them to go to university, but now I have my doubts. One of them has already expressed serious reservations about university and the other is undecided. Whilst I can't help feeling a twinge of disappointment, I'm certainly not going to put pressure on them. Under the new regime young people will undoubtedly think much more carefully before deciding to go to university, and will only go if they think the long term rewards will outweigh the costs. Perhaps that is a good thing, since it should in theory mean that those who do enter higher education are genuinely committed to it. However, it also means that an awful lot of young people are likely to forgo the potentially life-changing experience of university.

That brings me to my third perspective, which is as a university lecturer. My subject area (construction and surveying) is essentially vocational, so it is possible that we will be less affected by the new fees system than the more traditional, academic subject areas. I suspect that many young people will choose to study subjects that are likely to provide a direct entry route to a professional career, so accredited courses in professional areas may well benefit from the new regime. Nevertheless, it will be a great shame for the country as a whole if applications to degree courses in the arts and humanities decline significantly. Society needs the thinkers and the creative minds which such courses produce. 

Monday, 6 February 2012

H809: Week 1 – Activity 1.4: Reading Hiltz and Meinke (1989): Teaching sociology in a virtual classroom

Overview of paper
The paper describes a study conducted between 1986 and 1988 at two colleges in New Jersey. Comparisons were made between the performance and perceptions of students studying a variety of sociology courses traditionally as against those studying in a virtual classroom or in ‘mixed mode’.  The results were derived from a statistical analysis of questionnaire surveys completed by students on the courses.

As an aside, one of the first things that struck me about this study was that the research took place between 1986 and 1988. During this period I was actually studying on a part time (day release) basis for my first degree. I am quite surprised that the technology which was the subject of this paper was even available. When I think back to my own studies at that time, electronic communications of any type were not even on the horizon!

Questions: What research questions are being addressed?
In summary the research sought to establish whether course delivery via a virtual classroom could achieve comparable outcomes to those of traditional face-to-face delivery. Additionally, the research identify the factors which contributed to positive or negative outcomes.

Setting: What is the sector and setting? 
The research was based in a higher education setting, and specifically within two New Jersey colleges. I’m not completely sure of the distinction between colleges and universities in America, so the UK equivalent setting might be more FE than HE. Nevertheless, the setting is clearly one of formal education, and the students in the research were studying  sociology courses.

Concepts: What theories, concepts and key terms are being used?
I would say that the fundamental concept under consideration is that of education. Early in the paper (p432) a definition of education is provided, and in very simple terms the researchers were simply trying to determine whether the objectives of education can be achieved using computer-mediated communication. Key educational terms used include collaborative learning; mastery of subject; access to educational activities; interest, involvement and motivation; interaction.
Educational technology is also a key concept, and the widely used terms are virtual classroom and computer-mediated communication.

Methods: What methods of data collection and analysis are used? 
The main data collection technique used was the questionnaire survey. Surveys were administered to students both before and after they took courses. The questionnaires were analysed statistically which is obviously a quantitative approach. In addition a qualitative approach was adopted through participant observation of the online conferences.

Findings: What did this research find out?
The key finding was that the use of the virtual classroom can “increase access to and effectiveness of college education”. There were some variations in the outcomes between courses, and particularly between courses at different levels, the significant finding was that the virtual classroom represented a “viable option” for post-secondary educational delivery.

Limitations: What are the limitations of the methods used?
Since the primary data collection technique was a questionnaire survey, I would say that the main limitation was that respondents are simply selecting their responses limited range of possible options and there is no opportunity to investigate the underlying significance of the results at a deeper level (such as would be possible using interviews).

Ethics: Are there any ethical issues associated with the research?
One possible ethical issue that springs to mind is that the researchers may have been enthusiastic about the technology, and therefore perhaps approached the research with a tacit expectation or hope that the technology would be shown to produce positive outcomes.

Implications: What are the implications (if any) for practice, policy or further research?
It is important to recognise that this research was conducted over 25 years ago. Clearly at the time, the use of the virtual classroom would have been highly innovative, and the results of this study would have been sufficient to warrant further studies and more widespread implementation.


Hiltz, S.R. and Meinke, R. (1989) ‘Teaching sociology in a virtual classroom’, Teaching Sociology, vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 431–46.