A version of this article was published in the TES on 3 February 2017. An edited version is available free online here. To read the full TES print version (which is here) you will need a subscription to the magazine. The text below is the longer, original version.
Google the words ‘further education’ and the search engine will probably finish your sentence for you with the words ‘financial crisis’.
Rarely does a day go by without news headlines warning of a ‘looming funding crisis’ in the sector and recent forecasts suggest as many as seventy colleges are “financially inadequate”.
Last year the Public Accounts Committee called on the government for more rapid intervention to save colleges in financial difficulties, describing the sector’s finances as “deeply worrying” and warning of a potential “financial meltdown”.
The government, meanwhile, says that improving the productivity of the further education sector is a key national challenge and, in addition to expanding the Apprenticeship programme, it’s pursuing two major planks of reform: The introduction of high quality professional and technical routes to employment; and improved responsiveness to local employer needs by means of local commissioning of adult provision.
The government claims that, in order to deliver these objectives, substantial change is required and the thirty-seven area-based reviews currently underway therefore aim to create “strong and financially resilient colleges which are specialised centres of expertise”.
As part of the reviews, colleges are asked to demonstrate that they are improving their financial health by, for example, undertaking a cost scrutiny exercise in order to identify how costs can be reduced and/or brought within sector norms.
The FE and Sixth Form College Commissioners, meanwhile, have identified significant scope for greater efficiency in the sector, in a way that – they say – “frees up resources to deliver high quality education and training which supports economic growth”.
So how can delivery costs be cut without sacrificing educational quality?
One answer is to introduce (or re-introduce or expand) the ‘lecture’ format as a means of teaching large groups of learners with fewer staff and therefore at lower costs.
As well as being cost effective, the lecture (as opposed to traditional classroom-based lessons and tutorials) is also a good use of precious learning space, enabling colleges to reduce the cost of their estate. Many college buildings have purpose-built lecture theatres or large communal spaces – whilst those that don’t have equally suitable areas (such as canteens, common rooms, dance or drama studios and so on) that can be appropriated for this purpose.
So why, if lectures are cost-effective means of teaching, do so few appear on learners’ timetables in FE?
Perhaps it’s because the lecture has become synonymous with didactic teaching of the worse kind: laborious, long-winded teacher-talk leading to passive not active learning.
But does it have to be this way? Do lectures have to be wholly didactic and, what’s more, is didacticism really the poor relation of active learning?
Appealing to the YouTube generation
Students like and learn from online ‘lectures’ all the time. They watch YouTube videos which explain how to apply make-up, bake cakes, build impressive structures on Minecraft, and so on. And they watch TEDTalks which inspire them on topics ranging from ‘How great leaders inspire action’ to ‘Your body language shapes who you are’, and from ‘Brain magic’ to ‘How to spot a liar’.
In short, students rely on quality instruction in their private lives – they watch online lectures, learn lessons from them, then emulate what they’ve seen and heard, challenging themselves to improve by increments.
So why not do so in their academic lives also?
In short, why not transport this popular mode of learning into colleges and provide regular lectures (let’s call them EDTalks) on learners’ timetables as a means of instructing them on new knowledge and skills , followed by planned opportunities for independent practice and self-assessment?
The benefits of the lecture format, therefore, do not begin and end with cost-cutting…
Lectures – like YouTube clips – can teach learners the art of attention, something which may be in short supply in this age of instant gratification. And lectures can provide learners with their first crucial step towards developing the capacity for ‘critical thinking’ because a good lecture offers not a simple recitation of facts, but a careful construction of an argument.
Lectures are also an exercise in mindfulness because learners must be attentive – active not passive – if they are to follow the lecturer’s argument and act on its central premise in their own work.
The act of note-making (rather than note-taking) is also an art form worth learning, and lectures provide plentiful opportunities for this.
Taking part in lectures and developing note-making skills enable students to reason, analyse and weigh statements and arguments, to develop a sense of curiosity and wonder.
Lectures also enable students to listen respectfully and carefully to others so that they are able to give feedback. They enable students to suspend their judgment until all the facts have been gathered and considered, to look for evidence to support their assumptions and beliefs, and to adjust their opinions when new facts are found.
A sense of belonging
The lecture format also gives whole cohorts a shared experience so that each learner is made to feel a part of the group and knows exactly what is expected of them.
Lectures give learners a sense of ‘belonging’, too; be that to an elective module, a particular programme cohort, or a whole year’s intake.
Lectures can make studying in large groups a positive experience so that learners feel valued and cared for. They can help learners to gain a real sense of identity as a member of a bigger cohort, too; and they can enable learners to see the myriad links that exist between different topics, modules and subject areas.
In this way, lectures can help learners to see and appreciate the bigger picture which, in turn, can provide both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation – gifting learners the want as well as the need to learn.
Making lectures inspiring
Students are more likely to engage with lectures and find them inspiring if the lecture form is explicitly linked to students’ experiences of online lectures and to the way in which they take what they have learned by watching YouTube or Ted and apply it in practice.
Students need to know that they are similarly expected to take learning away from a lecture given in college and then apply it in practice. As such, lecture material should – where possible – be active not passive, applied not theoretical.
Lectures can also be inspiring if they arouse students’ curiosity and interest in a subject, and motivate them to do a lot of reading and studying outside of the lecture theatre.
In short, the lecture should be a catalyst – a trigger – for learning not the sole means of learning new information.
The lecture, then, is one solution to the ongoing financial crisis faced by the FE sector, ensuring high quality education at a lower cost.
Moreover, a lecture replicates a mode of learning already popular with learners in their private lives, thus inspiring and engaging them to learn.