Section: Campus Life
First ETH Day of Visions|
Impulses for teaching
To start off ETH Visions week, last Monday was dedicated to a whole day of lively debate on the subject of teaching at ETH Zurich. It became clear that structural incentives were needed in order to improve the status of teaching. Moreover, with the Bologna reform and the tendency towards the total and permanent availability of knowledge, teaching at universities finds itself under constant pressure to change.
"ETH Vision Week" began Monday last with the "Day of Teaching" at ETH's central campus. It was a last culmination of this year's 150th Jubilee. The Jubilee team had transformed the main building into a teaching forum with a wide range of events, which included lectures, workshops, an exhibition and show interludes. ETH could not succeed in transforming grammar school graduates into able experts simply by a transfer of knowledge, said Bertram Batlogg, ETH professor of physics and responsible for the "Day of Teaching" at the opening. It was vital to kindle the young people's enthusiasm, curiosity and creativity.
The capability to awaken enthusiasm and creativity: this is a talent that good lecturers possess. Ideal teachers are gratified when the trigger is sparked and the listener is as fascinated as they themselves are by the subject matter. So far, so good, but then there is the other justification for the existence of universities–research. Because academic careers are not built upon pedagogical or other "soft" talents, but on solid research. Research dividends come in the form of acknowledgement and perspectives at the institutional level. The teaching bonus, on the other hand, is "only" manifest in the shape of satisfied students. It is no surprise therefore that less attention is paid to the transfer of knowledge than to scientific research.
Knowledge in its entirety always available
Mistakenly, as was shown on Monday. Because the "bread and butter job" of the university, as Batlogg put it, was about to undergo a dramatic transformation. In the not too distant future, factual knowledge in its entirety will be available on tap and easily accessible using easily-manageable devices, as Hermann Maurer, computer science professor from the TU Graz, made clear in his address. With this in view, the current debate must focus on just how and what could and should be taught in future.
This was precisely the intention of the "Groupe de Réflexion“, which collated results that issued from the daily events that took place during ETH Visions week. The group comprised Ernst Hafen, designated president of ETH Zurich, Olaf Kübler, who relinquishes that office at the end of November, Martin Heller, a cultural entrepreneur who made a name for himself as "Mister Expo.02“, Felicitas Pauss, ETH Professor of Particle Physics, Daniela Suppiger, PhD student at the ETH Centre of Structure Technologies in the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering, and Mauro Pfister, mathematician and President of the ETH Students' Association.
Contributions on the subject were expected from the workshops on offer this day. One, entitled, "ETH teaching in 30 year's time“, worked on the supposition that the areas of tension between research and teaching would persist and that new incentives needed to be created to increase the quality of the latter. Whether lectures would survive as a means of teaching was discussed and opinions differed. But there was agreement on one point; despite the expected technological impulses the future success of teaching would continue to be determined by the personal relationships between teachers and students.
Students also have a duty
The workshop, "Optimising teaching events" also revealed that incentives are lacking for lecturers to increase their pedagogical know-how. The tenure-track system for assessment professors at ETH, for example, aimed at these researchers doing as much research as possible. Teaching, on the other hand, played only a minor role when it came to the evaluation of upcoming professors. Suggestions to improve this situation included the introduction of quality criteria for teaching, the setting up of a peer monitoring, the fostering of a feedback culture in general and to push ahead with didactic training–if need be mandatory.
It wasn't only from teachers, however, that methodological improvement was expected. The Bologna era increased the degree of autonomous study and thus also put increased pressure on students to acquire and assimilate knowledge independently. And in order to create an atmosphere that was more conducive to learning ETH could move towards selecting its students itself, was a suggestion which was declared "heretical" tough.
Testing equals learning
A further "side effect" of the Bologna reform was an increase in efficiency control, as was said in the "Exams" workshop. In the new system of courses, each credit was allied to a test, explained Balthasar Eugster from ETH's Didactic Centre. The trend was towards exams for each lecture. The integrating final exams were thus practically destined to become redundant–a development that also evoked scepticism. Merely ticking off a list of courses of study might lead to a situation in which comprehensive knowledge was no longer ensured. Moreover, a good exam was not only characterised by its selective character; those sitting it learned something and it was thus also a lecture.
Acquiring competence, not for its own sake but as a means to reach definite goals: This was the result promoted in the "Soft Skills“ workshop. When one developed a product it was imperative to have the capability of interacting in a team in a way that led to the goal, whether physically or via a computer, said Wilfried Elspass from the ETH Centre for Product Development. At present ETH Zurich awarded no credits for the acquisition of such capabilities. This is exactly what PhD student Koni Osterwalder claimed when disputing the results of the day with his namesake who is holding the office of Rector of the ETH and therefore is responsible for education, here.
In the closing event of the day the two namesakes fought a rhetorical duel. In Audimax, filled with a totally engaged and enthusiastic audience, an exchange on teaching from the points of view of students and school authorities took place to the accompaniment of a chess clock. The PhD student deplored the scarcity and low importance accorded to practical references in the teaching, criticised the lack of pedagogical criteria in the appointment of professors, called for the fostering of critical thought and students' independence, open communication as well as a distinctive self-reliant ETH culture, one that did not always take a sidelong glance at MIT. This only occurred there where it made sense, countered the ETH rector. With regard to the student/professor ratio, for instance, this wasn't the case because this was far more favourable at MIT.
The situation in teaching at ETH, said the rector, had improved thanks to evaluations, alumni surveys and the enlargement of didactic courses on offer. Practical courses also had their place in ETH teaching, but they must not be allowed to supplant theory. In any event, it was also up to the students to say something if they felt themselves to strictly led by a professor, said Osterwalder. Sometimes a consumer mentality reigned amongst the student body.
Capability instead of knowledge
In the final round of the day contested by the Groupe de Réflexion there was much talk of a key competence called "energy loaded curiosity". To awaken this had to become the primary goal of ETH teaching within the next 30 years. It would hardly be a question, as is the case today, of what finishing students knew but what they were capable of doing, summed up Ernst Hafen. As a consequence the number of "face-to-face lectures" would fall sharply. More teachers and students working closely together and exchanging points of view would nurture the independence of students, also in new forms of teaching.
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