Education flourishes in freedom

Behind the ‘control bureaucracy’ of specification tables and accreditations lies a parallel universe in which lecturers are free to design their own education. Fortunately, says Ben Vollaard, because this freedom explains why both lecturers and students are so satisfied.

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“This is the title of the course; the rest is up to you.”

Suppose this is what you as a lecturer are told. You are in charge of the design of your course; only the structure of the study program is a given. The design, that is pretty much everything: which didactic method, which subjects, which assessments, which textbook, etc.

The Academic Director relies entirely on you, therefore. If things go wrong, he or she will notice it soon enough. There is a student sounding board for that, every now and then the Director listens to the lecturers, and at the end of the courses, there are course evaluations.

I can say from experience: lecturing in this way works fantastically. This is how the MSc Economics program—in which I offer two courses and will be the academic director next year—is organized. We can be proud of the results. The student evaluations could hardly be higher.

Last semester, the average score for the question “I am satisfied with this course” was 4.2 (on a scale of 1 to 5), despite the lockdown. The average score for the question “I am satisfied with this lecturer” was even higher, at 4.5. In the Keuzegids Masters the Tilburg MSc Economics program has been at the top regarding a comparison of ten programs in this field since 2017. Students of our MSc also appear to be the most popular with employers according to magnet.me (Dutch only).

‘It’s wonderful to be trusted

Not only the students are happy but also the lecturers although that is entirely based on my own impressions. Let me speak for myself: it is wonderful to be trusted – and to be proud of the result of something you have put together yourself. It gives me great satisfaction when students are enthusiastic about my course. That is what I do it for!

For example, what could be better than a student writing at the bottom of his exam: “This course really changed the way I look at things.” At the same time, I am happy to see that my fellow lecturers take their lecturing just equally seriously and are just as enthusiastic.

Lecturing in this way is what the philosopher Amelia Horgan, author of the book Lost in Work, recently called “a good job” in an interview in NRC Handelsblad: “One with enough autonomy, where you have control over your tasks, (…) and where you are not being watched.”

Of course, completely relying on you as a lecturer also creates tension. I have had to build the two courses I offer from the ground up, under time pressure. A few years ago, for example, in May, I received a request to offer a course in econometrics, effective the end of August. Nothing was certain; my own knowledge and skills were my only point of reference. “This is impossible,” I exclaimed. “If I really must do this, I can only do it in my own way.” “That sounds perfectly fine to us,” was the reply. And that’s how it happened.

Uniformity

This form of organizing education is special because it goes against what I call the ‘control bureaucracy.’ The idea that things can only go well if all processes are recorded is gaining ground. A characteristic of this approach is that quality equals uniformity of processes. Education is becoming a form of synchronized swimming, but boring. It is not the lecturer’s own initiative that is central, but compliance with uniform processes. An appropriate term for this is ‘flattening’; making everything the same.

So ask lecturers to write down exactly what the objectives of the course are. This can only be done according to a fixed pattern in a spreadsheet. Also ask them how the assessments will relate to this. In the same spreadsheet, tick a few things in the columns provided for this purpose. And so on. Then someone checks whether you have recorded the processes and whether you have indeed sent everything on the list. If so, it is ‘good’, if not, it is ‘not good’.

‘A checklist is not suitable for a lecturer’s creative work

The latest development is that you not only have to send in all your exams and answers, but also proof that a colleague has gone through your exam. Every few years this whole process goes into overdrivefor accreditation.

I have never come across a fellow lecturer who sees the point of this. It does not help us to do our work better. Of course, a checklist can be useful, for example, for a pilot who wants to start flying shortly. But a checklist is not suitable for a lecturer’s creative work. That is much more open ended. A lecturer still has to think about whether it will be a plane or a boat, where it will go, and by what route.

The great thing is that the control bureaucracy is a sideshow within our program. The Oxford dictionary has a beautiful definition: a minor issue, especially one which distracts attention from something more important.

Useful feedback

What does make sense is feedback from people who know what good education is. I recently experienced this again. I had invited a colleague from educational development (the Education Service Department), Susan van Soest, to give feedback on my lectures. She had useful suggestions and opened discussions about things I had overlooked.

Her suggestions are completely attuned to my profession, my development. She coaches, she does not flatten the conversation. That will help me improve. I will have Susan, and don’t bother with those spreadsheet exercises. Lecturing is a profession that we learn by doing, and I like to be supported in that.

In the interests of good education, it makes more sense to invest in such coaching than in further control bureaucracy. The latter is distracting. It’s a pity of the time it takes up and also of the university’s resources for all the related overhead.

Ultimately, it’s about relying on the intrinsic motivation of the lecturer. Every lecturer is different and provides education in his or her own way. We don’t force artists to color in the same coloring pages and hand them in on time, do we? That would be boring!

The Department does keep an eye on our education – and takes our performance into account in promotion decisions. The results of student evaluations and the judgement of the Academic Director are relevant for this and, fortunately, not whether we have completed the spreadsheets completely and on time.

Ben Vollaard is an associate professor at the Department of Economics (TISEM).

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel

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