I really liked this distinction, raised by Prof. Peter T. Struck of UPenn, in a recent interview with The Chronicle on his hopes for and concerns about teaching a free online unit on Greek myth (you can read it here). I particularly liked his comment: “Great education is transformative. Data transfer isn’t.”

I wonder if I have been educating students, or shoving data at them. I hadn’t considered the difference terribly consciously until now. I hope I’ve done at least some of the former. Yet I fear that some of my – and my colleagues’ – obsessions tend to focus on data transfer, perhaps because it’s the easiest thing to notice when it goes wrong or fails. When a student hasn’t realised that a unit requires a certain footnote style, for instance, it’s noticeable: you mark an essay and groan as you write for the sixth or seventh time, ‘please note, footnotes are required by all history units…‘, and wonder why you bothered spending a whole tutorial on research and citation skills if nobody was listening.

We’ve thought and talked a fair bit about how to do this better next time, for example by doubling the tutorial time dedicated to discussing these skills, by redesigning relevant assessment to emphasise key skills, changing the format of the tutorial, and so on. This week, however, a colleague and I realised in the course of our conversation that most of the measures we’ve considered involve an increase in our responsibility, as if all we – as teachers – must do is ‘more’ and that will fix it. We began to think that, instead, we might need to force each student to assume these responsibilities for themselves: this, as we said to each other, is a more valuable thing to teach them in the long run than how to conform to MHRA style.

In light of Prof. Struck’s comments, I now see this little case study as a discussion of education vs. data transfer, and I’m pleased that we arrived independently at the notion that the former was preferable. The question remains, how to do it in practice. Education is a darn sight harder to do and to design than merely dispensing information. Somehow an eagerness for knowledge, and both the tools and the motivation to seek it for oneself have to be conveyed. Can this be done when the time allotted to a unit is no more than 22 lecture and 10 tutorial hours?

Any suggestions?