by MERLIN CROSSLEY
I’m not sure if anyone else has noticed it but astronomers are great at collaboration. They talk together and work out what they need, and then they work together to get it. They never seem to disagree, unless it is to argue about whether the telescope should be big, very big, or even bigger.
What is their secret?
Is it that they come from one of the oldest and purest scientific disciplines? Are they grounded, or is it the opposite – are they in heaven? Does astronomy attract a particular type of collaborative person or do people become collaborative once they’ve become astronomers?
I’m sure it is many things, but I bet it is partly that the technology brings them together – they share telescopes. I’ve seen this in my own discipline – molecular genetics. When equipment becomes more sophisticated and core facilities are needed – people come together and work together. It’s effective and it’s fun.
The increasing dependence of teaching on new technologies, and the new opportunities for sharing innovations, makes me wonder whether we are now on the cusp of a new era of collaboration in teaching, where communities of teachers will become more and more important. I certainly hope so.
When I started teaching I was helped by a few people in my discipline. One lecturer gave me his old lecture notes and I was equipped with a piece of chalk and directed to the blackboard. I was involved in curriculum discussions and exam setting but mostly I gave the lectures by myself and my community consisted of the students in the class, not so much as the other lecturers in the course.
Practicals were different. I worked closely with the staff who prepared the laboratory reagents, and I was also careful to coordinate with other lecturers so that all our pracs fitted together. Again, however, it was the technological focus of our laboratories that brought us together.
Nowadays I do less teaching and get by using the old and trusted ways – I had even completed my first term lectures just before COVID hit so I didn’t actually have to ‘pivot’ online. In my case I would have stumbled, fumbled, limped or dragged myself online rather than pivoted like a ballet dancer, but I have now given a couple of on-line talks and I got by with a little help from my friends.
This is perhaps the point – I connected with friends and fellow teachers for advice.
What I have seen, not just during COVID-19, but for the last few years is teachers innovating and sharing their knowledge with friends. Some of it happens automatically, as grass roots groups of enthusiasts get together and share new ways of teaching on-line, engaging and giving feedback on-line, podcasting, blogging, or setting up wiki pages to engage students or fellow teachers. In other instances, our Education Focussed community of staff at UNSW have formed “communities of practice” to tackle important problems and processes, and the Scientia Education Academy lectures have highlighted new approaches to teaching or assessment that depend on new technologies.
The annual Teaching and Learning Forum has been increasingly well attended as staff are eager to talk about or learn about the new approaches that technology is making possible. The introduction of “peer review of teaching” if done in the right, highly supportive way, together with new mentoring systems, can further help develop teaching communities populated by like minded staff who care deeply about students and their learning.
At the same time more data on teaching has emerged as everything has become digital. Data from big machines naturally brings to life new research questions that were previously unthinkable and teachers from different disciplines gather together to discuss the data and analyse it from different perspectives. A narrative evolves that can be discussed with colleagues outside the classroom.
Which brings me to another point – while I admire our astronomers enormously I don’t really collaborate with them in my research because the telescopes they use and the microscopes I use are different and we really live on different research planets. But in teaching we all inhabit the same universe.
Interestingly at UNSW our astronomers were among the first I saw teaching on-line and they quickly learnt what works well and what doesn’t. They are masters of making things interesting and setting up new systems for on-line assessment, and they also collect data on class performance year after year. They can tell what works and what doesn’t and other disciplines can adapt their approaches – whenever they want to.
I’ve written before about the need for research to be specialised, deep and focused. Teaching should involve deep knowledge too but the technologies used to pass on knowledge, form communities, maintain engagement, encourage questioning, and reward hard work and learning by the students can cross disciplines with ease. While strong research relationships and lifelong collaborations between laboratories are usually focused on cognate or complementary disciplines, teachers from across the whole university can readily get together.
Many enthusiastic and inspiring teachers are already reaching out and forming their own communities. With just a little effort it is possible for universities to establish stable frameworks and opportunities that will enhance and sustain these collaborative networks. It is good for our students but it is also good for the staff. For a long time teaching was a sort of personal calling, something seen by the students but not by others. All that is changing now.
We would not even know about Socrates’ approaches to teaching if Plato had not recorded them. Nowadays we can be each others Platos and set up systems that encourage the generation and sharing of new approaches to teaching that are made possible by advances in technology. All this has happened before but only here and there, our increasing reliance on core technologies for teaching, suggests to me that even more collaboration lies ahead, and I think it will be both rewarding and fun.
Prof. Merlin Crossley,
DVC A, UNSW