One of the most vexing issues in the move towards mass higher education that is taking place in almost every developed country is the issue of class size and how that relates to both the quality of the student learning experience and the ability of the teacher to provide an educational service of which they can feel professionally proud. Of course, there are some lecturers with fine rhetorical skills, great eloquence and a powerful sense of 'presence' who can capture the imagination and inspire a whole lecture theatre full of students. Indeed, here in Galway there are many examples of such skilled practitioners across the institution, some of whom are beginning to be recognised in our Teaching Excellence Awards and others who, whilst not more publicly celebrated, are greatly appreciated by their students and colleagues.
On a more extreme level, at one of our Teaching & Learning Conferences a couple of years ago, we heard from a Canadian lecturer who teaches 1200 first year psychology students in his university's basketball stadium, equipped with a team of "roadies" a sound crew and giant video screens!
There are (more reasonable) techologies and teaching techniques which we can bring to bear to support large enrolment classes(1). There are even books, websites, videos and workshops devoted to the skills of 'lecture performance' which can benefit even the most anxious of public speakers (2). However, the reality of teaching in many modern institutions of higher education is that class sizes, in some subject areas, are reaching a scale that was inconceivable a decade or so ago. The impact this has on the morale of students and staff is not difficult to imagine.
In the UK, too, the issue has been raised once again in the press, as in this week's Times Higher Education Supplement's report(3) that the current average Student-to-Staff Ratio (SSR)is running at 21 students per staff member. The Association for University Teachers (AUT) has seized on this statistic and compares it to the SSR of 9 that existed in the 1970s.
In the latest proposal from the IUA, "Reform of 3rd Level and Creation of 4th Level Ireland: Securing Competitive Advantage in the 21st Century" (4), it is pleasing therefore to see the recognition of the fundamental educational importance of small class teaching and for this to receive such prominence in the proposals. Of course, it is part of a wider call for greater levels of investment in higher education and whether such will be forthcoming, we'll need to wait to see.
(1)For example, http://www.tedi.uq.edu.au/largeclasses/
(2) For example, http://bokcenter.harvard.edu/booksvid/vids/ActOfTeaching.html