inside a lecture theatre
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What are universities for?

Preamble

If you are like me, you have probably signed up, willing or not-willingly to a range of newsletters. I really like these coming into my inbox. It means that I have one place for everything and never need to go looking elsewhere for suitable reading material.

I recently was sent a link to an article on The Conversation. This is a site that I would love to feature on in the future, but for the moment I am just reading. The article that caught my attention was What is the point of assessment in higher education anyway?

After reading it I was left with a question lurking in my mind. What are universities actually for?

Extension of Learning

After contemplating the question for a while, I came up with the idea that universities are where learning continues. I soon challenged this and added the word ‘formal’ since lifelong learning, as the name suggests, would say we are always learning.

Formal learning links more to qualifications, standard assessment methods, and what I call knowledge serving sessions. The latter is when the learner is passive and often apathetic and the tutor shares their knowledge of the subject in order to try and motivate the learner and prepare them for assessments.

This never sits well with me. First I don’t want anyone to be passive and second I don’t want the learning to be focused on knowledge! I agree that sometimes there is an element of new knowledge that needs to be understood, but for me, the focus of learning should be on the development of skills to challenge this knowledge.

Fueled by curiosity

As I am writing this I am listening to a group of learners discussing their new programme. Their discussion focuses on parking fees, timetables and available time away from learning. Not once was there any excitement about their first session! If anything they finished their discussion by saying – “well we better head off to the session now”.

I’m one of those tutors who get massively excited about learning. Sometimes I can feel the excitement being physically drained from me as sessions continue. I want the learners to challenge me, to share their own understanding of the topic and even contribute positively to the learning experience. I am insanely curious. Throughout the day my brain never relinquishes its quest for new understanding and development. I hear statements or read paragraphs and immediately wonder what does that mean? do I agree with it? do I want to share that and -and this is the one that I sometimes get frustrated by – why didn’t I think of that!

My learning is fueled by curiosity and I wonder if the learners have this never-ending source of power!

The setup is all wrong!

I never did well in formal education. I like to be independent with my learning. I like to challenge concepts, ask those annoying ‘why’ questions, and go at my speed. The formal system does not allow for this ebb and flow. But does the university allow for this?

I’m still trying to get things together for my PhD but I think that way of learning would be more suitable for me and maybe others as well. I once watched a series of YouTube videos created by a YouTuber who was studying at Cambridge. (Yes, I was watching them because I was insanely nosey!). I was really intrigued by their learning setup. At the start of the week, they had whole cohort lectures. Tasks were set from these lectures for the learners to complete independently. Later in the week, the students have a session with the tutor where the tutor asks – how can I help? If the students say nothing or they haven’t engaged with the tasks, then the meeting ends. However, if they are curious about something, need more support, or even further explanation then the session continues focused on what the learners have asked for.

This is a fantastic model. The reason I like this model is that the learners are in control of the session and it is being tailored to them. I also think it rewards those who want to actually engage with their learning and further it, rather than it focusing on those who are not really interested. I also think that this model presents the tutor and learner as equals.

So what are universities for?

I think I have come to an answer to the initial question. I believe that universities are for learning. They should be fueled by the curiosity of both tutors and learners as they continue to create new concepts, develop new and existing skills, and explore how what they have discovered can impact the world.

Universities are not for the faint-hearted or lazy learners. You should expect challenge, discussion, and hard work. Our motivation comes from wanting to make a difference and it is through this that we contribute to the current sphere of knowledge and understanding.

The only question that remains is if this is what universities are for, are you in the right place?

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