I’ve just finished delivering a commercial training course, a 5-day course where we teach people how to use Arria’s Articulator Pro Software Development Kit (SDK) to build Natural Language Generation systems. This is the third time I’ve done this, and I must say that its a very different experience from academic teaching, which I have done since 1995. Of course part of the difference is that the commercial training course is focused on teaching a very specific technical skill (how to use Articulator Pro), while the academic teaching was more generic computer science skills. The commercial course was also run as an intense one-week course instead of spread out over a semester. But there were other differences as well:
- Engagement: At the university, it sometimes seems that many of the students are not very engaged, and certainly many never ask a question. Some students rarely show up for lectures. Whereas everyone on the commercial course was very engaged and asked questions. University students also pretty much accept whatever I do, whereas the commercial students are much more vocal about what they want me to cover.
- Assessment: University courses place huge emphasis on assessment, and indeed students often focus on passing the assessment and exam instead of learning the material. We had no assessment at all in our commercial training course (although we may add this in the future).
- Bureaucracy: Universities tend to have lots of admin and bureaucracy around teaching, whereas there was very little in our training course. It sometimes seems that universities think the key to teaching quality is elaborate bureaucratic procedures; this is not the case in commercial training courses!
I guess one way of looking at this is the trainees on the commercial training course really cared about learning the material, which is why they were engaged and why there was not much emphasis on assessment or bureaucracy; whereas many university students are mainly interested in passing the course and getting a degree, so they care mainly about assessment and some students will only engage to the degree necessary to pass the course. Also the time of commercial trainees is more valuable (they could be out earning money if they were not at the course), while the time of university students perhaps has less immediate monetary value.
Is there scope for improving university training by making it more like commercial training?
I would love to get university students more engaged, so that they show up, ask questions, tell us what they want to learn, and indeed request changes in teaching if they are not satisfied. I dont know how to do this, though. Teenagers coming straight from secondary school are perhaps used to a model where they listen rather than engage (of course depends on the school). I suspect that many students also feel, rightly or wrongly, that university faculty will not listen to them, which reduces the desire to engage. If this is the case, then this is a failure on the part of my colleagues and I at the university.
For commercial training, I guess there is also a feeling that attendees (or their companies) have paid good money for training, so they expect a good “product”. University students dont seem to feel this as strongly, even if they (or their parents) are paying high tuition fees.
I would love to reduce the emphasis on assessment in university courses; we should be focusing on teaching, not on assessing. But unfortunately its part of the culture, and driven by the emphasis on passing courses and getting degrees.
Would be wonderful to reduce the bureaucracy of university teaching! I suspect this reflects a public-sector ethos at the university (focus is often on conforming to processes and rules) compared to a private-sector ethos for commercial training (focus is definitely on satisfied customers). Which is slightly strange since the university is not really public-sector. 30 years ago it was definitely public-sector, but these days the university needs to pay its bills from teaching and research income, so it needs students. But I guess culture changes slowly at large organisations.