While on maternity leave, I have been taking the opportunity to catch
up on the sort of book which was fashionable a few years back but I
never got round to reading. I finished "The Tipping Point"
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tipping_Point published in 2000)
since Ian was born and it occurred to me that there might be some
useful ideas in there in terms of improving university teaching. The
book is about social epidemics and the conditions which cause them to
gain momentum to the point where change happens rapidly and radically.
It gives some examples of successful marketing, education and public
health interventions which worked by leveraging ideas from how
epidemics spread and putting them to a positive purpose. It also
suggests why some public health campaigns such as anti-smoking
campaigns for teenagers just don't work and how they could be fixed.
This isn't my academic area, so I am not sure whether it is all
codswallop or not. At any rate, it suggests a way of looking at the
problem of improving teaching which I hadn't thought of before and
that can be useful. Imagine if there was an unstoppable epidemic of
teachers hell bent on improving their practice! Imagine if there was a
sudden shift away from traditional boring lectures towards classes
designed to match the subject and learners.
Gladwell describes three rules of epidemics.
1. The Law of the Few
Change can be brought about by a small number of highly socially
influential people. Not necessarily people in positions of official
power, but people who have a large impact on their social networks.
There are three subtypes of people: connectors, mavens and
salespeople. Connectors are people with a large number of weak social
ties who are very socially gifted, interested in people, and have a
knack of making new friends and acquaintances. News travels fast when
spread by connectors. Within a university you need a teaching
evangelist who knows a lot of people across the university, but also
in other universities so they can spread whatever new teaching methods
are current. Mavens are information hounds who are extremely
knowledgeable and keen to pass on their expertise in a helpful way.
For example, the kind of person who always tries out new technology in
the hope it might be useful for teaching could be a maven if he also
tells lots of people about it. Salespeople are highly persuasive
charismatic individuals who can benignly convince people of their
point of view. An excellent visiting speaker can often inspire staff
to try a new teaching method by enthusiastically describing a teaching
case study. In rarer cases, you might get one person who fills all
three roles and if you're very lucky, they might work in your academic
practice unit at your university. At the very least, a university
would need a connector in the kind of post which aims to teach
lecturing staff about new teaching approaches, and that connector
would need to work with mavens and salespeople inside and outwith the
organisation. (Like flexible learning pal, faithful reader of this blog!) In this view it is
down to the people rather than the university policy which will make
educational change happen. It doesn't come from a management
hierarchy but from flat social networks (in the old fashioned sense). In my opinion, though, some support would be required from senior management or at least they would have to get out of the way to enable change to happen.
2. The Stickiness Factor
This refers to how memorable the message to be spread is.I suspect this is the key to a lot of the success of social epidemics. Apparently Sesame Street was very carefully devised in a user centred, iterative way to test which aspects of the show work well for young children and this is largely what made it so massively successful. Although the educational content was presumably the same even if it was presented in a way to make it "stickier". Am I suggesting that academics should have inservice training with Big Bird? No. But having CPD sessions on topics requested by academics with their feedback incorporated into sessions might work well. Academics typically hate being lectured at and having to attend classes so I take my hat off to the people who do this well (again like Flexible Learning Pal).
3. The Power of Context
The environment (including time and place) will make a difference to how quickly change is achieved. The example from the book is the Zero Tolerance campaign for crime in New York. By seriously combatting low level crime like vandalism and fair dodging on the subway, NYC drime rates dropped dramatically in a few years. (Or so the author claims). The idea is that small things in the environment can make a big difference towards individuals' willingness to change their own behaviour. In the context of university teaching, this might be getting rid of the small everyday irritants which trip you up every time you try to do something different. Such as timetablers not giving you 2 hour slots, or rooms not being big enough for group work. Unfortunately these seemingly small changes take a huge effort to change in slow organisations like the university and actually do require the management hierarchy to be involved.
It seems to me that a social epidemic of good teaching practice could be achieved in my uni particularly because the academic enhancement people are good connectors, mavens and salespeople. Time has shown that it can't be done without resources, which is why it is good that there is now top managment support for teaching at my uni. Hopefully this will get round the stumbling blocks in the environment and help speed change along.