Universities are changing, not dying


Fisher Library at University of SydneyCurrently, Fisher Library at the University of Sydney is subject to a renewal project. The transition is discussed by Daniel Stacey in a piece for Fairfax expressing concern about the removal of books from the library to storage, and the reworking of that space to 'hot desking chill zones and break out areas'.

On reading the piece, I had an initial pang of recognition, for the University of Sydney is my alma mater too, having studied for a science/arts degree there, and a PhD. Fisher's 'renewal' raises a number of questions, from the simple to the catastrophising: What about all those books? And what about a university's responsibility to provide abundant texts for learning? Is this a sign of the end of quality learning and teaching at universities?

Fisher's renewal began in earnest in 2012. Since then I've convened a third year human geography course at Macquarie University, and am halfway through convening a first year gGeographies of global change' course. In so doing, I've learnt a lot about what students expect from a university education, and the ways that educators have to change to support the learning outcomes we want them to achieve.

I've got excellent mentors at Macquarie, including other early career academics, who teach me what they've learnt through their own teaching, and more experienced academics, who share their longer-term views. Which is lucky as I'm enthusiastic about good teaching and also keen to distribute my research for discussion and debate.

I don't see these as mutually incompatible goals and love working with others who approach academic work in similar ways. Contracted, junior staffers like me are doing much of the teaching, and the pressure to 'publish or perish' may lead to poorer outcomes for students, especially if there is a lack of prioritising of teaching roles. These are not new dynamics, yet the greater number of people graduating with PhDs does intensify them.

As an early career academic, I have only convened a small number of undergraduate courses, but in one course there was a participation mark given to students for attending and contributing to tutorials. Happily, the students did attend these classes and gave substantive efforts to generating learning.

One reason for this participation, aside from the enticement of earning marks, was that they involved a range of different learning modes: from role plays for negotiating resource management, to reflection on learning over the semester, to critique of map-making for the same northern Australian river catchment by different stakeholders. At the same time, lecture attendance did reduce over the course of the semester, perhaps because lectures were recorded and available online, and attendance at lectures wasn't mandatory to achieve the learning outcomes.

But there are greater opportunities to improve teaching in response to the challenges of meeting the needs of diverse student cohorts. For example, the diversity in tutorial experiences, where skills and content are emphasised to the betterment of learners and teachers alike, feeds in to how students tend to prefer learning by doing rather than being told. This requires more than just reading, but making things too, like websites to communicate group learning activities, and posters to communicate a student's reflection on a learning process.

Underlining these practices is a growing trend that sees more people considering university as a desirable step to achieve professional skills and capacities. This means that a broader range of people are participating in tertiary education than in the past. Universities Australia found in a 2013 survey that 88 per cent of their sampled 1300 people encourage their children to attend universities. This large pool of potential students requires educators to accommodate diverse learning needs, and do more than just set essays to assess students' learning.

For instance, recent research identifies that today's students are working online, and use technology seamlessly, meaning that even the notion of how students are 'reading' course materials to get a grasp of concepts and content must acknowledge this mode of learning. Many students and teachers are already using online learning effectively, and find online environments useful if they are given the right support to work with new technologies.

So the moves at the Fisher Library to provide more spaces for working online are in fact necessary for university learning. Break out areas, too, are important for people to achieve group work goals effectively.

Overall, I think learners and teachers alike need to open up to new ways of learning, and not lock ourselves in to rigid expectations of what is ideal in the learning-teaching relationship. Rather, let's support innovative learning and teaching, and address the political economies of universities that may be limiting success in both realms.

Jessica McLean headshotJessica McLean is a Human Geography Lecturer at Macquarie University, researching and teaching geographies of water cultures, hyrbidity, musical spaces, Indigenous rights and feminism. She tweets as @jess_emma_mc

Topic tags: Jessica McLean, universities, Fisher Library, University of Sydney



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Thanks Jessica for bringing clarity to the mystery of change!
Jenny price | 23 September 2013

Thank you Jessica for this snapshot of the contemporary university. Libraries are certainly one of the sites of transformation. Chill zones and breakout areas have been seen as imperative for some time and in some university libraries are about all that is left of the library. Two challenges facing libraries are those of zero campus space and, this will seem strange to some, more books. The e-book revolution has not reversed the fact that each year more monographs are published worldwide than the previous year. Libraries have to discern which ones must be ordered and the ratio of print to digital still heavily favours print. It will for some time to come. Where to put all these books when you are dedicated to chill zones? Offsite storage has become a way of life for these libraries, or else the amazing concentrated retrieval storage onsite at for example Macquarie. The main issue here is the withdrawal of serendipity, the way in which a student finds everything they didn’t know existed all in the one place on the shelf. It is an eternal truth that learning begins not with finding the required book on the shelf, but the book next to it. This has ramifications for online learning as well, with its emphasis on required reading. We will read everything we are asked to, but has this pushed the boundaries of our thinking about the subject? It used to be the job of librarians to put before the student the texts beyond the boundaries. Online is a wonder but is not omniscient. In fact, online has very little academic regulation, so how do we know what is good, bad, or ugly? Some librarians today also ponder the very real argument that print is the most stable of all the available formats. What is the half-life of an e-book? Is the original print material of more value than its copy on a CD-Rom reader that can no longer read the data? As it is, we are looking at knowledge in the form of information on an unimaginable scale. How to get that knowledge to people so they know it, remains the librarians’ challenge.
PHILIP HARVEY | 23 September 2013

I`m not quite sure what this article is about. But it is certainly true that higher education is changing rapidly and radically to align with the imperatives and opportunities of the e-age. The idea of the inside-out university (or School for that matter) is that the basic learning can occur anywhere on line with tremendous resources available, including the e-lectures locally prepared.The teaching staff add value through face-to-face or on line seminars, where reading is directed, teased out, and through interactive discussion, fully explored. visions are created. The role of the teacher/mentor changes but remains just as important as ever. Ultimately the institution also has to assess the individual and award qualifications reflecting ability and as always for success, hard work.
Eugene | 23 September 2013

I admire Jessica McLean's optimism on universities. Alas I cannot share it. As a teacher I benefit from the undimmed freshenss of young minds more than they fro mine. As a researcher I grieve the destruction of scholarship by a trivial and trivialising managerial ideology. The antithesis of the search for truth. Gaita elegantly, Chomsky trenchantly, and many others have fingered and explicated this plague on academic integrity far better than I can. Can the rot be stopped? I would suggest the first item would be for universities to "downsize" the managerialist lobbies: namely, the sunfry Graduate "Schools" of Management. Will it happen? Fat chance.
Fred Green | 23 September 2013


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