Teaching Large Classes: Discussion. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA image via Giulia Forsythe on Flickr @giuliaforsythe
(This post is part of a series about the New Academics Program (NAP), I’ll be using this blog to scribble notes about the NAP as I work my way through it.)
Ask ten different people what effective teaching is and you’ll get ten different answers. Here’s a handy definition (let’s call it the willing definition for now) from Grant Campbell, currently Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Huddersfield. The original source may possibly be from elsewhere. 
“Effective teaching is inclining people to learn willingly what they would otherwise be disinclined to learn.”
So according to this definition, good teachers make you learn things you wouldn’t normally be interested in, or as campbell puts it Teaching easy interesting stuff is easy. Teaching difficult dull stuff is more of a challenge.
Is this definition useful?
This is an unusual definition, but is teaching easy interesting stuff always easy to do? Probably not. It’s also not always obvious to teachers (or students) how hard or easy things are going to be to learn. Appearances can be deceptive.
Imagine trying to teach somebody something they didn’t want to know or poorly understood. Like the Physicist Akram Khan @ProfAkramKhan, who has been trying to teach the novelist Will Self about Particle Physics, that’s hard (especially with a deliberately difficult student like Self) but the results are entertaining. Most students in higher education are considerably more willing than Self, and more motivated to work their way through the inevitable dull hard stuff that comes with every subject, so IMHO, effective teaching is about both the dull and the exciting.
- Diane Salter (2013) Cases on Quality Teaching Practices in Higher Education ISBN-13: 978-1466636613
The debate about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is making lots of people think harder about education and how people learn. Are we witnessing Higher Education’s Napster moment, where online services replace physical ones  ? Is undergraduate education over-priced ? How can education be improved ? What is the point of Education anyway? These are all interesting and mostly unanswered questions.
You might hear it said that secondary education is often delivered by excellent teachers, with questionable subject knowledge, whereas higher education is delivered by experts with excellent subject knowledge, but poorer teaching skills.
Jason Bangbala, an educational consultant, puts it another way.
What is the difference between primary, secondary and higher education?
- In primary education, the teachers love their students.
- In secondary education, the teachers love their subject.
- In higher education, the teachers love themselves.
True? Hmmm, I don’t know. But it is funny…
- Moshe Vardi (2012). Will MOOCs destroy academia? Communications of the ACM, 55 (11), 5-5 DOI: 10.1145/2366316.2366317
- Salman Khan (2013). What college could be like Communications of the ACM, 56 (1) DOI: 10.1145/2398356.2398370
- Fred Martin (2012). Will massive open online courses change how we teach? Communications of the ACM, 55 (8) DOI: 10.1145/2240236.2240246