Open Eye: Teaching the lecturers

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The Independent Online
Universities train people for most of the professions. Law, medicine, engineering - any profession, there's an undergraduate or post-graduate degree in it; and the degree is often linked to a professional qualification, often a licence to practice.

Strange, then, that those who teach in higher education don't need a qualification to teach. In their discipline or first profession, yes. In their second profession - teaching - no. It doesn't necessarily mean they are bad teachers: many university teachers are excellent, many more are at least competent. But it means that no-one - students, their sponsors, or employers - can be sure that university teachers have been prepared to an acceptable standard to teach.

This is changing. Teaching in higher education is being given higher priority. One factor is the introduction of student fees: students are now paying for their education and their expectations are rising. Another is the Institute for Learning and Teaching.

The ILT was launched last month to implement the Dearing recommendation that 'it should become the norm for all permanent staff with teaching responsibilities to be trained on accredited programmes'. The Funding Council is also giving more weight to teaching.

The Open University is involved in three major initiatives to raise the profile and quality of higher education teaching.

First, the OU is offering training and accreditation for university teachers. The Centre for Higher Education Practice (CeHEP) runs three qualification courses for those who teach in higher education; Teaching in Higher Education, Course Design in Higher Education, and even a combined course, Teaching and Course Design in Higher Education. The courses give 30 or 60 master- level credits. They are designed to give professional accreditation, initially from the Staff and Educational Development Association then, when the standards are confirmed, from the ILT.

Many lecturers will tell you that their subject is different, and therefore that teaching their subject is different from teaching other subjects. And they're right. Participants on these courses are tutored by a lecturer in their broad subject area. The other members of their tutor group are also lecturers from the same subject area. This way, the tutoring on the course is about teaching the particular subject in which everyone is interested - not about teaching in general.

Second, the University is practising what it teaches and providing accreditation for its own tutors (now called associate lecturers).

Although OU tutors receive training from the OU, until now they have received no qualification for teaching abilities. From November about 750 will be en route for an HE teaching qualification from CeHEP courses.

CeHEP is also supporting improvement across the sector. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) with the Department for Education for Northern Ireland is investing in improving teaching and learning: about pounds 83m over the next three years for a Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund.

Three large parts of that fund are co-ordinated from CeHEP. They are: The Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning - 63 projects in Universities and Colleges across England and Northern Ireland spreading the excellent practice in teaching and learning which has been identified through subject assessment; The Teaching and Learning Technology Programme - 44 projects helping academics to make good use of technology-based course materials; and supporting all English universities to develop and implement a learning and teaching strategy.

Where better than the Open University, already successfully committed to large-scale excellence in teaching and learning, to be a platform for improving teaching and learning both within itself and across higher education?

David Baume is Co-Director of CeHEP, with particular responsibility for courses.