Dr Liz Barnett is leaving LSE this month, after sixteen years as director of its Teaching and Learning Centre. She reflects here on the changes she has seen over those years to teaching and learning at the School.
I left LSE first time round in 1982, when I completed my PhD in Social Psychology. I returned in 1998 as the School’s first Teaching and Learning Development Officer. Much seemed the same – including some staff who have out-stayed me second time round! LSE’s motto, “understanding the cause of things”, remains fundamental. LSE is, as it was, a truly international space to learn. The School retains a strong sense of self, and a determination to set its own agenda, rather than follow others, or bow to external expectations. And despite occasional thoughts of moving, it is now firmly ensconced and growing (it often feels almost daily!) between parliament and city. But where we had an “intellectual slum”, we now have (and increasingly look forward to) spaces that are designed with education and learning in mind, so much of its strength is retained.
But I also see real change – and more to come. It comes in three key forms: a move from a “one size fits all” to an expanding diversity of approach in promoting and supporting learning; a change from a “sink or swim” culture to much more active development and support; and finally a shift in our educational provision being a remarkably private process (albeit often between one lecturer and several hundred students) to a much more shared, public and visible process.
An expanding diversity of approach
It was intriguing to return to LSE in 1998. Technology had barely touched the School’s educational provision, even though millions of pounds of investment had been available countrywide. This was one of the first major initiatives I was involved in, working closely with colleagues in the then Information Systems Department, Library and IT. Today, the Centre for Learning Technology is thriving and Moodle and other software options provide students with much improved access to resources in multiple forms, space to share their learning, and an ever increasing array of ways to communicate with each other, with faculty and with burgeoning resources worldwide. This will continue to be a space for development and new opportunity.
What happens face to face has developed massively too. Lectures, even very large ones, are increasingly participatory. Case based teaching is growing. In classes new ideas are constantly being developed and shared amongst those doing the teaching – see for example the annual Teaching Symposium and the many posts on this blog about internal projects. LSE100 has been a particularly strong space for innovation in delivery. More undergraduates are being actively involved in research – an important development for a leading research intensive institution. And much more is being made of London and beyond with student field visits as well as many courses bringing in visiting specialists and professionals to contribute.
Assessment diversity has proved more challenging. Exams remain central to many undergraduate programmes. But experiments, including assessing class participation, field based projects, blog posts, online quizzes, shared presentations and Capstone projects, are increasingly common, providing students with new ways of demonstrating their learning.
Teaching Task Force II is continuing to encourage this diversity. It is emphasizing departmental discretion in approach, based on pedagogic principles, and encouraging a move away from “standard” School-wide expectations.
More active development and support
For academics, there are ever higher expectations around excellence in teaching. To support this, there is now a growing culture of training and development. Initial training through central and departmental events is well established and generally appreciated. Different forms of teaching observation (peer/mentor/specialist) bring ideas and new ways of thinking to bear directly on teaching in context. This development is timely, focused and tailored – three important elements of effective feedback! This autumn, the Teaching and Learning Centre will launch a new Academic Development Scheme open to faculty at all levels, that will support colleagues throughout their careers, in line with the expectations of the New Academic Contract.
For students, the partnership between the Teaching and Learning Centre, the Language Centre, Careers and, more recently, LSE100 has worked to support and extend student learning. There are also many new projects in departments that work with students on academic writing and problem solving – see for example LAWS, AC100 and more … And alongside these, a growth in direct support through counselling, disability provision, much improved connections between School and residential life, and significant developments to how student progress is reviewed and supported. The challenge now will be to improve faculty contact with students to stretch student learning further.
Making teaching “public”
Teaching and learning is increasingly publicly shared. Lectures are no longer one off events, but frequently captured, if not via lecture capture then on smart phones and laptops. The classical “circus” courses that were a feature of many core master’s courses early on have been re-worked and now regularly have a “master or mistress of ceremonies” who provides linkage and continuity between the individual elements. Teaching ideas are much more actively shared: the Teaching and Learning Centre has funded the development of several departmental handbooks as well as online resources that class teachers can share and reuse. Student feedback is shared, considered, and used both for course development and in decisions about promotion and reward. This year, we celebrated the excellence of over 70 faculty, graduate teaching assistants, guest teachers and other staff involved in working with and supporting students. A sign that teaching is important and is being taken seriously by many.
LSE has much to celebrate in the education it provides. It is changing. It is building on its strengths, and seeing where change will bring real benefits to both teachers and students.