Two metaphors for professors and course delivery, comparing North America and China

December 7, 2010, [MD]

I have described the historical and contextual background for the Top Level Courses Project, and compared it with the MIT OpenCourseWare project using a typology based on four different purposes. I have also discussed the possible impact of the MIT OpenCourseWare project conceptualized as either a norm or a policy innovation. However, what about reversing the picture, and asking: what are the chances that the Top Level Courses Project could be a policy innovation that might inspire North America? Apart from the decentralized higher education system in North America, which probably makes a similar project led by the federal or even a state government an impossibility, there is another factor which makes it difficult to conceptualize the implementation of a similar system even within a single university.

To explain this, and to illustrate what I believe to be a fundamental but little commented upon difference between the two university systems, I will propose two different metaphors for conceptualizing a professor, and the act of teaching a course: The professor as an artist and the course as a masterpiece, or the professor as an artisan, and the course a piece of craftmanship.

What we today call the multiversity does not have one single historical lineage, but brings together a number of different traditions. However, academics have since the early universities in Bologna and Paris struggled to establish a respected profession, with limited entry, that was largely self-managing. William Clark (2006) describes the “charismatic academics” that emerged in the 18th Century, that cultivated their charisma by insisting on their professorial dignity and by gathering admirers of their lecturing and research achievements. This emergence is related to the development of a specific university model, as symbolized by Humboldt University in Germany, originally the University of Berlin, where professors were given “Lehr und Lernfreiheit”, or the freedom to teach and research (Kopetz 2002). This led to the idea of “academic superstars”, even though in the current research universities, the way to fame has changed from applauding students attending your lecture, to publishing in the most prestigious journals.

If we think of this “charismatic academic” with a spark of genius as an artist, and their courses as master pieces, a number of things become clear. Although the patron of an artist would hope to see the artist deliver a string of masterpieces, one would never thoroughly examine a masterpiece to provide feedback on how next year’s artwork could be “even better”. Even less would one want an artwork designed by committee. Thus a tenured professor in North America is usually free to teach more or less what he or she wants, and although there is a system of student evaluations, there is no rigorous quality improvement system. The same academics that willingly submit their research to review by their peers, will not accept anyone sitting in on their classes, to offer friendly advice at the end, and a course tends to be a personal achievement that disappears when an academic disappears, developed alone, and not shared with others.

However, this is not the only historical model of a university. Husén (1991) introduced four different historical models of the university.

If we look at the two first models listed, the Humboldtian research university, and the British residential model, they both focus on charismatic academics, and the idea that teaching did not need to be carefully planned to be successful, merely coming into contact with a great professor, and working with them in a form of apprenticeship, or mentor-mentee relationship, would be sufficient.

The French model, on the other hand, was much more centralized, where professors were hired as civil servants who helped produce future bureaucrats and political leaders. This was a much more goal-oriented system, and it separated research from teaching. Because of cultural affiliations, the French system had a large impact on Russian higher education, which began the introduction of technical higher education in 1809 with creating copies of the grandes écoles. This highly state-directed system also suited the Soviet Union, and was the inspiration for the system that would eventually be transmitted to China in the 1950’s (as we have seen in chapter two) (Gouzevitch 1995).

The significance of separating research from teaching is profound, because it implies a specific epistemological view. According to Hayhoe (2008, 29):

Within Soviet Communism, knowledge was seen as encyclopaedic, embracing all of the subject matter developed over human history. Thus the major subject disciplines developed in 19th century Europe were preserved in the curricula of secondary and tertiary institutions.

If you believe that knowledge is “encyclopaedic”, it is possible to centralize and organize the teaching of this knowledge in very standardized forms. The purpose of a university degree becomes to transmit a certain body of knowledge, and one can measure and improve the delivery mechanism. In the German system, education could be seen not as transmitting a body of knowledge, but as cultivating certain attitudes and modes of thought among the students, training them to think scientifically.

Although these two models differ significantly in their view of epistemology, the act of delivering a course would still be entrusted to a single teacher. Distance universities offer a very different image of an academic, and the development of a course. At the Open University in the United Kingdom, whenever a new course needs to be developed, a committee is put together. This will typically consist of subject specialists, instructional designers, media specialists and web designers. The development of a new course typically takes several years. Once the course has been designed, it can then be offered to a large number of people (Bissell and Williams 2008).

Above we suggested that in the traditional research university, a professor could be seen as an artist, producing masterpieces. The distance university mode of production suggests a very different metaphor, one of an artisan. An artisan is skilled at what he or she does, but it can be learnt. He or she may work alone or together with a group of people towards a well-defined goal. The most important aspect is that the final product is improvable, it can be tested and evaluated, and it can be improved upon.

Just as not all courses in North America are developed following the untouchable masterpiece metaphor, academics in China certainly do not fully adhere to the artisan metaphor. However, there is a very different tradition for developing courses, and improving on these in concert with others. Some of this comes from a history of a very centralized curriculum, and a lack of academic freedom and professorial autonomy. But some of this humbleness and willingness to work together, and to improve, would surely be welcome in North America as well.

Thus the Ministry of Education is intent on promoting teaching teams consisting of senior, mid-career and young academics, to promote knowledge transfer and the involvement of senior faculty in undergraduate education. Courses have often been developed over a twenty-year period, in some cases being handed from mentor to mentee. Courses also regularly undergo internal and external peer-review, and many of the informants spoke of the way this had allowed them to reflect on their teaching methods, and share good ideas with colleagues. That all seems like a very sensible approach, although one that would be very difficult to implement in a system still characterized by the image of artists and divine inspiration.

However, it is possible that things will be changing at North American universities as well. Distance and online learning is already growing at a very high pace, not just at traditional open universities, but at all institutions of learning. Because of the technical requirements, and the mode of delivery, these courses often end up being produced much more collaboratively.

This might have an impact on regular courses as well. James Bess (2000) has proposed that college teaching is so complex that its various roles cannot be expected to be filled by only one person. There are many different cognitive roles involved with developing and delivering a course, and Bess identified seven: content research, instructional design, instructional delivery, discussion leading, content/activity integration, assessment, and mentoring. Collaborative teams might be able to provide more comprehensive service to students than individual teachers. It would also mitigate the current “intellectual and physical isolation of the faculty member as teacher”, and the resulting “paucity of opportunities for significant reward” which Bess believes plagues the North American system (p. 2). In light of this perspective, perhaps North America could learn something from the Chinese Top Level Courses Project.

The quotes in this text is from the MA Thesis "The Chinese National Top Level Courses Project: Using Open Educational Resources to Promote Quality in Undergraduate Teaching" by Stian Håklev, University of Toronto 2010.

Stian Håklev December 7, 2010 Toronto, Canada
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