Erica Wilson and Thomas Roche provide a rich description of changes in teaching and learning at Southern Cross University involving the newly introduced “Block” mode teaching model (CMM November 25) .

The large-scale introduction of the Block mode approach occurred at Victoria University in recent years; VU’s commitment to it is now well established. Importantly, the then Vice Chancellor, Peter Dawkins, personally taught first-year economics using the Block mode, giving VU management an intimate understanding of the approach.

Sceptics of Block mode teaching say that typical class sizes make it significantly more costly than conventional approaches. Given the ever-present existence of funding constraints, cost is important, however the empirical evidence supports the conclusion that the Block mode approach can be highly cost effective.

Over the past seven years, the Higher Education and Research Group has developed and refined a productivity measurement methodology known as the Research and Education Efficiency Frontier Index. The REEF methodology measures university productivity, capturing both research and education productivity outcomes in a single comprehensive measure. It applies equally to research intensive universities and those that are more teaching focused. REEF now incorporates other factors including variability in research quality. Further work. adding measures on equity and diversity as well as engagement, is underway.

As part of developing REEF, research on finding the factors that explain variability in productivity has commenced. This includes both demand and supply side factors. The second phase of this work includes intertemporal analyses of the productivity consequences of factors such as public policy setting reforms.

The research is in its infancy but some initial observations are relevant to the Erica Wilson and Thomas Roche article.

Student attrition is a significant explanator of university productivity in a range of situations. Indeed, it appears that overall student attrition is the single biggest negatively signed factor in explaining university productivity.

The judicious use of Block mode teaching can significantly lower student attrition – and provides a “win–win” outcome. Its introduction into relevant courses increases university productivity and, therefore, lowers net costs incurred. As described by Wilson and Roche, it can also provide stronger academic outcomes for a range of students.

Looking back on two decades of productivity gains in the sector, research productivity growth far exceeds that for education. Only a handful of universities increased their education productivity by more than 50 per cent for the period 2001 to 2020; those are: ANU, Uni Adelaide, Curtin U, Murdoch U and Victoria U. For VU, the majority of this productivity improvement occurred in the years after Block mode teaching commenced.  Perhaps the next phase of university development in Australia will include strengthening outcomes in education productivity.

Block mode teaching will not be for all – but might be an innovation whose time has come in some situations.

Innovations, such as Block mode teaching, are ever present in our universities.  Recognising them and reporting on their benefits, both in terms of academic and productivity outcomes, and having the evidence base to support on-going funding support, will be a key challenge for the sector.

Keith Houghton is Chief Academic Strategist, Higher Education and Research Group, an evidence based advisory firm with offices in Melbourne and Canberra


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