April 25, 2014

How the Federal government can improve university teaching at (almost) no cost

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Photo of lecture room with students

Is this distance education?

The challenge

In our study of 11 institutions trying to implement technology for teaching, Albert Sangra and I found over and over again that most instructors were merely adding technology to the current classroom-based model. We were surprised at the lack of imagination and innovation in using technology for teaching. Why is this not happening? We believe it’s because most university instructors have no alternative model, no other pedagogical framework, than the traditional classroom lecture, seminar and lab based model.

In other words, they have no training in teaching. It is this lack of basic training in a major aspect of their work that is preventing innovation and change in our universities.

Why is training needed?

It is not difficult to make the case for systematic, formal training in teaching, both before or on entry to university and college teaching, as well as continuing professional education. We would not dream of allowing doctors or pilots do their work without formal training related to their main work activities, yet this is exactly the situation regarding teaching in post-secondary education.

When university education was limited to an elite few students, where faculty had a close, one-on-one relationship with students, it was possible to manage quite effectively without formal training in teaching. That is not the case today. Faculty are challenged by large classes, and heterogeneous students who learn in a variety of ways, with different skills and abilities. The emphasis is changing from knowledge as content to knowledge as process. Teaching methods need to be chosen that will develop the skills and competencies needed in a knowledge-base society, and on top of all this, constantly changing technology requires instructors to have analytical frameworks to help choose and use technologies appropriately for teaching.

Of course, a deep understanding of a subject area helps make an outstanding teacher, and a relatively few faculty are outstanding ‘natural’ teachers. Others learn to be good teachers the hard way, by trial and error (with students suffering the errors). However, it is one of the few professions where you are not required to be trained in one of your main areas of work. (A Ph.D. is a training in research, not teaching – two related but quite different activities). Indeed, academics are often highly suspicious or skeptical of educational theory or pedagogy. It is ironic though that faculty who pride themselves in being up to date in research in their subject domain are often willfully ignorant of research into teaching and learning, and how it could be applied to their everyday activities (see Christensen Hughes and Mighty, 2010).

Organizational culture as a barrier

During a meeting at one of the case study institutions to determine what strategies could be used to increase the innovative use of technology in teaching, I suggested that the university might want to change the way it trained graduate students, and include within the Ph.D. program a requirement to take some courses on educational theory and practice. This was immediately rejected, because it would create problems in recruiting the best research students. ‘If they had to take time away from their research, they would go to another university which did not have this requirement.’ In other words, this is not a solution that can be addressed by one institution in isolation; it is a systemic problem. So although a problem was recognized, it could not be ‘touched’.

Another comment during the same conversation is even more revealing. An alternative suggestion was that the university require all faculty who have applied for tenure to have some formal qualification in teaching, or proof of quality teaching, as well as research, as a condition for tenure. This too was rejected, for a similar reason: that would stop the institution attracting the best research faculty. ‘Even though it would be in the best interests of the students?’ I said. ‘ You don’t understand,’ was the reply. ‘The primary stakeholder here is the faculty member. If we don’t get the best research professors, we won’t attract the best students, and the reputation of the university will suffer.’ He may be right, but this is a hell of a barrier to change.

Conditions for the appointment, tenure and promotion of faculty in universities are not imposed by senior management, but by faculty themselves. Senior professors sit on tenure and promotion committees and make and apply the rules for tenure appointments and promotion. Thus senior faculty members are in control of the main institutional reward system and it is used ruthlessly to protect the dominant organizational culture. This is one of the last ‘guild’ systems by which a trade or profession protects itself from ‘outside’ influences.

However, as long as research is king, and as long as there is competition between institutions for the best research faculty, there is little likelihood of universities requiring faculty to be qualified in teaching, even though teaching is always given lip service in the conditions for appointment, tenure and promotion. Giving as much attention to a faculty member’s teaching performance as to their research record for tenure and promotion will require a transformation in organizational culture and behavior. However, this is unlikely to happen if left to faculty themselves. As a result, students and the public suffer: students, because they are not getting better quality teaching; and the public, because teaching is less effective than it could be, and hence costly.

Making government a part of the solution

Systematic training in teaching for all instructors is critical not just for the appropriate application of technology but for the overall effectiveness of teaching in post-secondary educational institutions. No other single action is likely to bring the required changes and improvements in the effectiveness of our post-secondary institutions. Because the stakes are so high, and because of the resistance to change resulting from the prevailing organizational culture, it will require direct intervention by government to bring about such systematic change.

Generally, governments are reluctant to intervene in the internal workings of post-secondary educational institutions. Indeed, public research universities have a great deal of autonomy, despite increasing pressure in recent times for more accountability. I also support a ‘hands-off’ approach by government for the most part. Governments are not well placed to micromanage organizations as complex as a research university or a locally-grounded community college.

However, governments can and do play a role in setting overall strategic directions for their public post-secondary education systems; indeed, when this involves extra funding for new research chairs, or more money for extra students to increase access, or closing down unaccredited private institutions, such moves are welcomed by the public institutions themselves. It is also appropriate for governments, following extensive consultation with institutions in the system and other stakeholders, to set priorities and strategic directions for the post-secondary education system as a whole.

But how do we get over the problem that in a federal system, if one state or province legislates to require training, all the ‘best’ faculty and graduate students will migrate to those states or provinces that don’t have such a requirement? Also, ‘good’ universities now recruit from around the world.

Tie student aid to faculty training in teaching

In both Canada and the USA, the federal government plays an important role in financing student aid. Without student financial aid, many institutions would lose their best students. So here’s my suggestion.

The Federal government would simply state that in three, four or five years time, no student will receive student aid to attend an institution where its instructors have not taken a federally-recognized post-graduate training program in post-secondary teaching.

How the program would work

The Federal government would give the institutions one year to come up with an appropriate program (or set of programs), which the universities themselves would run, but which would require approval from the Federal government (who will have created a panel of experts in university teaching to make the judgement). Institutions would be given targets. For instance, a minimum of 10% of all instructors (in FTEs) must have received training by year 1 of the scheme and 100% by year 10 for Federal approval. So in 10 years, all the universities in the USA  and/or Canada would have 100% of their instructors with at least some training in teaching. (It would certainly help if the Canadian and US Federal governments worked together on this, to stop country hopping). Probably no other single action will improve the quality of our graduates, and the beauty of it is that it costs government virtually nothing.

How would the universities do this? The cheapest way would be to offer a 10-12 credit post-graduate certificate program for graduate students wanting a career as a university instructor, spread over one year. This program would also be open to adjunct faculty – yes, they too will need to be trained – and to already tenured faculty. It would make sense for universities to collaborate to develop a program that could be shared, and the program would involve at least some online learning. The universities will be responsible for covering most of the cost of the program, since students already pay tuition fees for graduate school. In other words, it would be partly subsidised by students spending three months of a four year Ph.D. on teaching, or 6% of their study, instead of all of it on research. This is hardly likely to weaken the quality of research graduates – indeed, it may help improve their research as well.

‘Experienced’ university instructors may have the option of taking the program by challenge, i.e. they can take the assessment for each course without having to take the course itself. However, they will have to pass the exam – that’s how it works, guys.


There are lots of different ways training could be implemented, but Federal government has the one tool or strategy that could drive real change in the system. Is there a politician willing to take leadership on this, and take on what will be a vicious campaign from the institutions?

Of course, the universities will not like it – they will bitch and make hell. So too will the faculty associations. But why should students, parents, and taxpayers in general, pay large amounts of money for a second class service when, with a little effort and imagination from government and the universities themselves, they could get a first class service, at almost no extra cost?

I’ll be interested to hear your comments on this. Anyone willing to bet on the likelihood of this happening in my lifetime? (Now that’s not a good bet – I’m over 70, and I’ll probably be a marked man from now on).


Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (in press) Managing technology in higher education: strategies for transforming teaching and learning San Francisco: Jossey Bass

Christensen Hughes, J. and Mighty, J. (eds.) (2010) Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Montreal QC and Kingston ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 350 pp, C$/US$39.95


  1. Ray Tolley says:

    Hi, Tony,

    I’m not claiming to speak for the whole of the UK HE/FE sector but I suspect that a large number of UK institutions are similar to the US and Canadian scenario.

    There are two serious outcomes of this malaise that need to be acknowledged. Firstly is that of retention rates. Here in the UK a large number of our Secondary schools and colleges are beginning to use liberated teaching and learning methods and students are leaving with good grades. They then move into FE/HE and get turned off by poor teaching methods and some leave in disgust.

    Secondly, newly qualified teachers who were trained under old didactic methods tend to repeat these teaching and learning styles when they get into full-time employment and thus continue the downward spiral.

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