The temporary closure of Hong Kong’s universities has accidentally highlighted the very old-fashioned way in which they operate in normal times. In the Middle Ages, when books were scarce and expensive, it was necessary for students to gather round the feet of an established scholar and gather the pearls which supposedly fell from his lips.

Nowadays this is hardly necessary. Unfortunately, the one topic which attracts little attention and less research in universities is their own internal doings. Education departments – where some relevant expertise lurks — are regarded as very much the bottom of the prestige pyramid; comments from them on the way more eminent people operate are neither welcomed nor heeded.

File photo: Wikicommons.

So the tools used to insert knowledge into young heads remain for the most part what they were hundreds of years ago: tutorials, seminars and lectures.

The difference between these is the number of people present. The classical tutorial is one and one: student and tutor. In practice, the number of students, at least in the early years of the degree course, may creep up to two or three.

What happens is that the student or students read out their essay on the set topic, and there is then a discussion. The tutor, if she is a good tutor, will try to make this a conversation of equals, while guiding the students in fruitful directions. The friendly atmosphere does not detract from the fact that this is a very demanding exercise for the student.

The seminar is bigger, and used to go up to about 12. This is the number up to which, according to the anthropologists, it is still possible to have a conversation, with some guidance from a leader. People speak spontaneously, interrupt (politely, we hope) and interact with each other. As in the tutorial, one person reads out his thoughts on the set subject, and these are then discussed.

This is an ordeal for the individual doing the reading. The other people may be tempted to sit back and say little. A good instructor will try to draw everyone into the conversation.

After this, we get to the lecture. Up to about 40 this can operate rather like a well-run school class: the teacher will set the topic, advise on readings and other resources, will set out his own views and invite questions and comments, to which she or he can respond.

Above 40 (another landmark for the anthropologists, for reasons we need not go into here) we are in the territory of the mass lecture. In this the instructor really has no choice but to perform. Meaningful two-way interaction with the audience is desperately difficult. Many of them will be unwilling to speak before such a large gathering, even if invited.

This has been a popular method since the 1700s and the only concession to modernity usually offered is a Powerpoint presentation.

Two points to note here. In various subjects there are other requirements: scientists do lab work, law students argue in moots, journalism people produce newspapers, medics have a clinical practice and so on. But the basic diet is still as above.

Secondly, there has been some inflation in the language used to describe these events. Many so-called “tutorials” are really seminars, “seminars” are so big they should properly be called lectures, and lectures have in some courses become so large – 300 and up students – that they are more like a very sleepy pop concert.

Clearly there are economic forces at work here, as there were at my secondary school, which switched from football to rugby on the very simple grounds that a teacher running a football game only occupied 22 boys, while a rugby match would engage 30.

Universities are propelled by competitive forces to do more research. The league tables measure little else. And this is congenial to their staff, for whom teaching is a chore, while research is what allows them to cherish the hope of being headhunted by Harvard.

So there is a temptation to reduce teaching hours, and spread them further by packing more students into the room. Against this is the dilution of the effect on students. As the number of people in the room goes up the temptation and opportunity to doze, wool-gather or Wechat to fellow-victims on your mobile phone increases.

People who knew which university I had been to would console me at this point with the reminder that the “Oxbridge method” demanded huge numbers of staff which we did not have. I was told this so often that I believed it.

Then one day I tackled a puzzle which had been bothering me for a while: why, if your staff:student ratio is, say, 1:14 do you not find that the average class has 14 people in it? Take it from me: you don’t.

The University of Hong Kong. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

After some struggling – my algebra had lain unused for 30 years and was never very good – I came up with the formula which determines your average class size, and to my surprise the staff:student ratio barely featured. The two important factors were the number of contact hours required of students and the number of teaching hours required of staff.

So actually you have a choice. I found that at our staffing levels we could provide a real weekly hour-long tutorial for an average of two students, with the staff conducting 12 of them a week, which was rather less time than we were supposed to be spending on teaching already. This would drop the students’ workload to one very strenuous session a week.

This was, of course, of no relevance to life as it was then lived at my university, or any other in Hong Kong. But it has become increasingly relevant. Because what the current crisis has revealed is that many of the current interactions between staff and students are unnecessary.

Threatened with a lethal new virus, everyone can retreat to their computer screens. At which point it becomes transparently unnecessary for a lecturer to read his notes to an audience. He can put them up on the internet and save his time for dealing with queries.

Indeed, trying to read them to an audience is emerging, as everyone plunges into on-line learning, as a big mistake. The days have gone when watchers were mesmerised by A.J.P. Taylor lecturing, straight to camera, one take, without notes, or by Brian Horrocks re-enacting the Battle of Arnhem with no more props than a sand-box and two expressive hands.

Modern audiences are accustomed to all-singing, all-dancing entertainment, with lights, action and moving pictures. Faced with a talking head for 40 minutes they lapse into a somnolent state, or start surreptitious conversations on their cellphones.

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Photo: HKUST.

Teachers at the university level perhaps need to face the fact that talking to large bodies of students is no longer our thing. They don’t need us to impart the basic information which our course requires. It’s all on the net anyway. Students who were not happy with my version of Clausewitz could find the version taught at West Point.

You may think that they could always do this by making proper use of the library, but generally we have never had much confidence in this theory. University systems are usually constructed on the basis that students will devote all their time to sport, booze and the pursuit of the opposite sex unless their noses are kept to the grindstone by constant tests and examinations.

Libraries have other problems. If 300 people are told to read the same book in the same week there are not going to be 300 copies of it there. They hate buying multiple copies because books go out of date. Your copies of Aristotle’s “Politics” may suffice for the next generation, but publishers of text books take a pride in producing new editions which can be advertised as making their predecessors obsolete.

Electronically, this is no longer a problem. Indeed, Aristotle has been available for years.  Nor are we limited to the classics. (Click here for an introduction to “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.”)

I feel the need at this point, first articulated by Bernard Levin, for a printer’s mark like the asterisk signifying that the writer did not make that last one up.

Given, then, that students can browse the globe in search of information and usually will find it, what are the teachers here for? We have an important new function, which is to teach them how to distinguish, as they forage the global information market place, the gold from the garbage.

We still also have the important old one, to transmit through personal example the approach which will help them in the outside world: curious, sceptical, engaged, tolerant, informed and humane. The challenge for universities is to develop a new approach which fits both what is now possible for the first time and what has always been necessary.

We have not seen much progress on this in Hong Kong. Perhaps the present epidemic, by kicking everyone out of their educational ruts, will have done some useful service.

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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.