My mentor, John, came to observe me just before Christmas holidays. Most students had other things on their minds like getting into huge debt they will be repaying till Easter. So generally I would not have expected extreme level of dedication during that week. However, this course was no ordinary degree course. This was what we call short course, where people pay a lot of money to attend several intense sessions. Having taught by someone with the great deal of industry experience makes it ideal way of learning something in the short period of time.
This was what The Manchester College (Manchester College of Arts and Technology, or MANCAT, back in 2005) initially employed me for – teaching short course in web programming. The course does not give a degree, it is only College certificate which is far below Cisco or Microsoft qualification. And yet the course is always in demand as people are always looking for an intense training in the area they desperately need to master, so they come for skills, not for a certificate.
It was easy for me to draw a picture of an average student on this course. Employed full time, working with web sites. Due to evolution of company’s IT system, some dynamic data need to be put on the web. That is when students google for web programming course. In 90% cases, company pays tuition fees and occasionally allows time remission to attend the course and do homework.
On that Wednesday, it was fourth session covering database connection from PHP scripts. Fortunately, my mentor’s area was close to technical things I was covering – but not too close to concentrate on them. I introduced John to the whole class and he then sat quietly in the corner.
The first thing that really struck was attendance. Having dealt mostly with young and irresponsible undergrads, John was shocked – it was so obvious on his face . 14 out of 15 students turned up, with the missing one being on skiing holiday in Austria. Not so different from irresponsible undergrads, huh? Well, that holiday was booked 2.5 years prior to him enrolling on this course – cannot blame for that! Student negotiated this absence two weeks ago, taking full content of the lesson and covering it before he left. All students were seated and prepared 10 minutes before the lesson started, except of one who finishes work at 5.15 and travels over 50 miles through the usual traffic jams. He arrived at 6.05.
Not only students’ attitude is different from an ordinary degree class. Teaching style and lesson flow are different too. The atmosphere itself is very different: there are no patronising orders and one-way delivery. These students participate much more. They ask questions. A lot of questions. The reason is very simple: some of them have already faced the problems I am covering. John has noted that I have answered students’ questions more like technical reference, rather than philosophical theory. Minimum theory and a lot of practical implications. Caveats, if any. All of this combined equipped them with tools they needed to solve their own problems. These students, unlike ordinary undergraduate students, understand most of the things I am saying. They also question most of the things I am saying. That is why I try to provide them with as comprehensive answer as possible. Are there three ways to do this thing? List them on the board. What are the differences? Answer with details noting the most important on the board. Any hidden or side effects? Mention them but don’t spend much time if they are rare or not relevant. Any remarks? Note them so that students heard such thing exists somewhere. After one such answer, John noticed that several students were clearly impressed with my answer to what looked like trivial problem. This is where my rich industry experience really pays off – I can easily understand what type of task they have by the type of question they ask, and I can explain using their terms. Experiences and practices that I have highlighted above relate directly to two criteria from UKPSF document. Namely: V1 “Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities” and A4 “Develop effective learning environments and approaches to student support and guidance”. I really like a statement made by one of the students in Ramsden’s (1992) book, where the student complains that the tutor chooses not to attend to some of the students’ questions on the basis that they are too ‘basic’ from the tutor’s perspective. This student says: “When we asked questions, if the tutor regarded them as being too basic, we were told off. But tutorials are to learn, not to be told off when you are wrong! A student should be encouraged, not discouraged. The tutor had a strong influence on my lack of interest (Industrial relations student, p. 77)”. I never disregard any of my students’ questions on the basis that they are two basic (from my perspective) and therefore are not worthy my session’s time and attention. I believe that if a student asks a question there is a reason for it and therefore it needs to be addressed and discussed to support and enhance the student’s full understanding of an issue or topic in question.
Things to improve? Noise level from server racks was horrendous. However, not much can be done about it as these servers are used in our lessons to run PHP and MySQL. There was request to move them into the separate server room but you know how quickly these requests are considered .
John also noticed that all students were extremely exhausted by the end of the session. Well, this is not necessary bad thing. Yes, I am an evil teacher sometimes , but I believe in Suvorov’s approach: “Train hard – fight easy!” But don’t forget that it was 9pm, all these students had full working day behind, and then they survived my lesson! The most important thing was that they left classroom with a sparkle in their eyes, eager to apply material we covered today in their environment. I have also given students handouts to take home with core session’s points explained for their future reference. Additionally have uploaded this (as well as all other sessions’ handouts to the virtual learning environment used in my department) so that those students who did not have an opportunity to attend my class could still catch up with it in their own time. Lovegrove (online resource), in relation to teaching of mature students and professionals (part-time students), mentions: “Good handouts make a big difference for students who have to miss occasional lectures (I’m not lazy, or hungover, or malingering – I’ve got a meeting I can’t reschedule or a work deadline that won’t shift)”. I completely agree with the author on this point.
Every student thanked me at the end of that lesson – you don’t normally get that after an average daytime class. In these moments, I feel that I fulfilled my role as a teacher, and tiredness is nothing compared to that feeling!
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7th January 2013
Ramsden, P. (1992) Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge.
Elizabeth Lovegrove, Oxford Brookes University. Ready for teaching mature and part-time students? [online] Available at: <http://www.brookes.ac.uk/services/ocsd/teachingnews/archive/summer06/elizabeth_lovegrove.html> [Accessed 7 January 2013].
The Higher Education Academy, 2012. UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF). [online] Available at: <http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/ukpsf> [Accessed 17 November 2012].