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Article
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open letter
The university

Against the block model

This open letter is a public protest against the conditions which students and staff at Victoria University have had to endure. I hope it speaks for many who have had their educational experience and their livelihoods as educators devalued due to one of the most potentially negative structural reforms in recent memory.

The conditions which administrators have unnecessarily established deserve to be spoken against and protested. Brilliant lecturers, tutors and professors which have dedicated themselves to academic life, to educating and enriching the lives of their students, have been forced to work in conditions that are intolerable, or else forced out from the university. After talking with both students and educators who have struggled due to the introduction of the new system, it has become obvious that we need to explain our issues with the block model to those outside of the university, and make people aware of the potential consequences surrounding its wider execution.

The block model was introduced during my first year of study. Conceptually, it promised to be a radical innovation: instead of teaching four units concurrently, which might confuse or alienate new or struggling students and cause them to fall behind, the model dictates that each unit be taught individually and in concentrated form, over four weeks instead of twelve. Blocks have three full days of classes a week. Semesters are extended to sixteen weeks, so that there are four blocks taught concurrently.

Much-extolled statistics on the VU website say that pass rates are up to eighty per cent, and ‘over forty per cent of students received distinctions and high distinctions, without a change to the assessments given.’ (Though this is not entirely true, as many assessments have been changed to fit into the block model.)

At first, the model was only meant to be implemented to the first year, as a way to ease the transition that recent high schooler graduates and workers unfamiliar with university schedules. But once that year ended, it was immediately decided it would follow on to the second-year subjects. Now, as I near the end of my course, not only has the block model been extended to all subjects in the undergraduate programs (regardless of subject, major or discipline), but that this will extend all the way up to units taught at postgraduate level as well. All of this without any wider discussion with staff and students.

While VU has stated that its version of the block model was originally run at Quest University in British Columbia, however some have remarked that it resembles ones first introduced in US institutions such as Cornell College and Colorado College since the early 2000s. In these forms, it is far from a recent innovation painted by VU, with early examples being seen as early as the 1970s. There is some evidence that the block model has increased higher grade averages for international students, a vital revenue stream for the university and other higher education institutions. Vice Chancellor Peter Dawkins has also stated, in uncomfortably classist language, that the block model was introduced over the traditional approach because the latter is ‘ill-suited’ to people living in the Melbourne’s western suburbs. A truthful answer to how and why it was brought to VU might never be adequately articulated.

At any rate, there doesn’t appear to be a reliable answer are questions regarding information retention in the block model compared to interleaving study. How able are students able to reliably memorize complex pieces of information, including information essential for future learning? It has been shown in multiple studies that the short-term ‘cramming’ style of education only delivers in the short term, while longer, more spaced out classes tend to promote long-term retention.

I would contend that the advantages of the block-model have been overstated, and the disadvantages concealed. The much-lauded statistic that seventy-four per cent of one thousand students polled ‘support extending the block-model model beyond the first year of study’ that was shared in emails within the university doesn’t account for the fact the only students surveyed were taking first-year units and were unlikely to have had any other form of tertiary education experience before, therefore nothing to compare the model to.

As always, however, context is key.

The block model has been introduced during an era of increased precarity in the tertiary education sector, of which Victoria University has been far from immune. In the last half decade, courses have been slashed, and the humanities in particular have been exsanguinated. Where a decade ago there was formerly a full-time staff of one hundred, there are now only ten, with a majority of staff being employed casually. The implementation of the block-model is a terminal form of this neoliberal wave of reforms. The remaining full-time staff have been forced to change the load of teaching to research, while ancillary resources are being stripped at an equally swift rate (witness the cutting of inter-lending). Teachers are more and more being turned into facilitators, with the onus of being placed on the students. This can best be seen with how block model assessments are structured: individual assignments are minimised in favour of group work and multiple-choice quizzes, enabling tutors to mark the bulk of students. In one unit I attended – formerly a second-year subject – the maximum written work we were expected to produce was a mere 1400 words over the entire four-week period.

The block model also leads to a lack of time for reading, particularly in subjects that would usually require a great deal of it, such as Literary Studies, History and other subjects that require critical engagement with texts. With the rapid pace of course delivery, teachers are less able to properly gauge those who might have difficulty with the material, and even if students admit to their inability to keep up, there is no reasonable amount of time to give them the assistance they require. There is little time to create the long-lasting relationships between each other or with their tutors.

It is not just relationships which are pressured by these new changes, but also bodies. Due to the compression of the block model’s learning schedule, classes cannot be cancelled without drastic repercussions for students’ marks and learning outcomes, and tutors and lecturers are often forced by necessity to work through illness or injury to continue teaching.

The block model also complicates the relationship with other institutions that follow the usual sixteen-week semester structure. Ironically, this is particularly challenging for foreign exchange-students which are completing units in Australia, as well for students who are forced to work with to get by. Due to the changing casualisation of work, employers require that employees work more flexible hours and conditions than in previous years, while the compression created by the block model holds to a more rigid schedule. Students can usually expect their timetables to change completely every four weeks, throwing their work-study balance out more than a traditional semester structure would (and that most employers are at least familiar with).

So far, VU has made very little attempt to gauge the interest and overall satisfaction of the student body with the block model, beyond holding a series of sessions in June of last year and setting up some email accounts for feedback. However, whatever precise results may have been garnered from these fact-finding initiatives – and the feedback that students have had to hand in mandatorily at the end of each unit – remains a mystery. The administration has been less than transparent not only concerning the satisfaction of students, but also of lecturers and tutors. I have had discussions with several tutors (some of whom have left during since the block model was instituted) who have expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of material and with the time frames that they and students are forced to work within.

Meanwhile, the silence from the university’s NTEU office has been disappointing. It is not dramatic to say that the implementation of block model at VU could have drastic repercussions on how other universities choose to structure the delivery of education in the future. While the union has made some headway on negotiating fair hours under the block model, its lack of a statement on a policy that directly and drastically increases the precarity of educators is contrary to the values and aims that NTEU purports to uphold.

Some of the questions that must be answered by the university before the completion of the roll-out of the block model include: have learning outcomes and assessments been damaged under the introduction of the block model? Has the university provided adequate security or safeguards for educators and students in the case of illness or emergency? Has the safety and health of educators been impacted by these changes, and if so, are these even able to be mitigated or avoided under the block model? How does the implementation of block model affect post-graduate learning outcomes? Why was the implementation of the block model rolled out so hastily, and without proper debate at multiple levels of the university’s staff and student body? How many educators and researchers have left VU in favour of other universities, or else have contracts lapse or be terminated if they protested, due to the adoption of the block model?

To students, who want the opportunities to learn in a university setting they were promised; to teachers, who want to be given the time to practice their profession properly; to union members, who  do not wish to see this disastrous model replicated elsewhere; to alumni who do not wish to see their own education devalued; and to community members who do not wish to have their local institutions further tarnished, I say: speak out against this. Write, call or contact the university administration. Make those in charge aware that they have not acted in your best interests, explain that the block model and the opaque manner in which it was implemented are unacceptable, and demand that the university undertake a public and transparent review.

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Comments

  1. I have not heard of the block model before as it’s a while since I was at uni, but it sounds horrendous – what made a typical sixteen week unit a rich learning experience was the length of time it took – to read over the weeks, to get to know your classmates and tutor, to slowly absorb information. This sounds like a pressure cooker environment, wholly unenjoyable and based on profit not learning. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Some interesting observations, but I would also add that most universities offer students too much choice leading to bad decisions and poor course combinations, and ultimately, not particularly useful degrees.
    By adopting a block approach students can study one subject intensively (over four weeks) without having to balance up to four different subjects, which aren’t integrated and which have no regard for each others assessment schedules.

    • To Richard
      Examine your logic please: A single unit over 4 weeks – is no choice – so not sure how its arguably better that ‘too much choice’ over any duration 4, 12 or 14 weeks. And if its having choice that causes students to make ‘bad’ decisions and poor course choices it seems you advocate a simpler life that is the antithesis of a democracy. That’s worth pondering.

      As to not integrated and presumably assessment schedules clashes, these are course mapping issues and not an argument for simplistic approaches in block. The nun of the issue is utility – for whom? For the student, we must ask learning outcomes and future work capacity if we reduce it to an instrumental worker as a cog in machine view. If we accept this, and I do not advocate it btw, ask is work organised in simple bite sized bits or does work if you get it expect some capacity to self organise and integrate competing tensions + think critically beyond surface level retention of ‘facts’. I reckon the future work place may expect a lot of the latter.
      So I suggest the rationale is weak for a machine view… that is in itself a poor form of education.
      Let’s turn to management – now what are their motives. There’s a mass of self serving rhetoric that seeks to blur the financial rationale that initiated the action as lower or no ATARS did not stem the declining numbers.
      Academic view? Worth asking, but it would seem we now need a PhD to work in a (knowledge) factory. The task of you accept it, is repeated mind numbing exchanges that do not allow deep / extended engagement with content, and which o suggest enable only surface level learning. I suggest we mock the notion of a university and the institution is trapped in mass groupthink, sustained by coercive control.

  3. Well done for raising these issues. One of the real casualties of the block mode is critical and objective discussion -notwithstanding the awards VU has won and PR spin emanating from VU. It is interesting that the author of the article wishes to remain anonymous. Many staff at the University also do not wish to identify themselves if raising critical issues for fear of retaliation. This is not an ill-founded belief. While there is much discussion organised by University management about the block mode to the point of ad nauseum, very little of this is critical, objective or non-partisan. This is because staff who do not support the block mode are targeted in restructuring processes or do not get promotion and there is a level of fear about raising any criticism. This is a pity because it prevents a genuine discussion about the educational merits of this educational method. While I guess it could be said that the block mode appears to improve attendance and enthusiasm of students because they are getting better marks for the shorter pieces of assessment they are required to do as the author notes it may on the other hand do so at the expense of compressing and minimising important developmental and contextual steps. In addition it may also be important for students to be involved in more thoroughgoing multi-tasking which is usually associated with doing multiple subjects in a traditional degree: an important learning skill needed for multi-skilling also in the workforce. More sustained longer tasks might again be associated with non-block mode. But the problem is the jury is still out on whether block mode has disadvantaged students in comparison with traditional degree students because we do not have the Graduate destination data yet on whether block mode has managed to work in this regard. The real test will be whether students get jobs and are respected in the workforce. The real pity is that students have been used as guinea pigs with potential consequences if it has not helped them gain a foothold in the future. Perhaps a wiser strategy would have been to run the block mode as a smaller pilot until the graduate destination story was fully known. However as the author notes this is a University wide strategic objective for VU with fiscal and budgetary implications which was never going to be tempered with caution or duty of care for students.

  4. As a student with a disability, I had to leave my beloved course at VU directly as a result of the block model. I needed to study part time in order to manage the workload, but with the block mode that basically just means you do full time for a month, and then have a month off. This was not sustainable for me. Additionally, my course was a small one and there was not much choice for class days and times. This meant that I could not always chose to have my classes throughout the semester at the same time or even the same day. As someone with a part time job, I could not ask my employer to change my roster every month or two. I tried discussing this with VU both before and after the implementation of the block model and I was told I was just looking for problems. So disappointing.

  5. About a year ago, an article in The Conversation raised some concerns about the block model; see: https://theconversation.com/why-block-subjects-might-not-be-best-for-university-student-learning-102909#

    While I do not think the article in The Conversation probed a sufficient range and depth of relevant issues, various commentaries did. A search for my first name will find a few contributions from me – of some length, so I will not reproduce them here. I invite readers to have a look at the article and ensuing dialogic flow of comments.

    In gist, as a former teacher-eduction academic (now retired), I share many of the concerns expressed in the article by the anonymous student, and by others who have commented. These concerns are about: (a) limits, in the time-scheme of the block model, for scaffolding rich and meaningful learning of concepts and thought important for knowledge, practice and self-understanding in relation to important social fields of work-and-life; (b) the need to consider work-and-life contexts and conditions of both students and staff; (c) the hastiness with which university executive managers and associated offices (HR, Marketing, etc.) push through ‘innovations’ through performative marketing campaigns that displace/avoid genuine assessments of substance; and (d) the ways that executive managers and associated offices suppress, and even punish, efforts towards robust participatory-democratic dialogue by which students, staff and other stakeholders can gain voice and share knowledge in order to make informed choices and contributions to debate that lead to substantive reforms.

  6. All true and essentially very concerning in the long-run. The initial upsurge in whatever stats was (at least in part) fuelled by throwing increase resources at the (for a good part) new staff and students by making available support and holding parties at block end boosting popularity – attention the ‘conventional’ teaching never received. So why would better resourced teaching not be better? But in the long-run and given the primary financial motive for this restructure? A proper evaluation has not been done and before all the pertinent questions raised in the article are being answered, VU is making preparation to roll out the Block Model into post-graduate teaching next…

  7. I am deeply shocked to hear about the changes at VU and it’s move to block learning. And l appreciate the student’s thorough elaboration in the lead article of its implementation and implications. Already there would appear to be very significant feedback from students and educators about the facts of their experience of it. It is fullhardy and shameful of the VU bureaucrats for doing so without consultation – the educators are the experts afterall. I worked through to completion a masters degree through VU years ago – it was a course ‘registered’ through VU but was implemented by industry based pratitioners and academics. The learning experience had me producing 60,000 words annually for 5 years, attending regular lectures and seminars. To this day l can recall the intellectual engage and struggle that characterised that program of study, and l recall it all today still very energised and exercised by the expriences l had. I acquired new abilities to patiently consider very complex situations and problems with respect, holding back from quick conclusions or judgements. I acquired a tolerance for diversity and for recognising what l don’t know or understand. I remember my masters course with gratitude and know that the extent of the learning experiences and rich engagement with the teachers and tutors was essential to my learning and to now functoning usefully, meaningfully and successfully in my career.
    the implications of VU’s action in installing the block learning are very serious and it needs to stop.
    Can there be an utter refusal to participate in it’s roll out? I appreciate that would be at great cost.
    Nicola

  8. I am apart of the first cohort of students living this nightmare, and believe me it is just that a nightmare! I cant wait to get out of the place. Myself along with a couple of hundred of people will not have a single complimentary thing to say about Victoria University when we graduate at the end of this year.

  9. I currently study the Bachelor of Nursing and the feedback from facilitators on placement has been incredibly disheartening. VU Students are amongst some of the worst performing due to an inability to link theory to practice when out in the field. As a student, a lot of my peers are barely able to find the time to consolidate their knowledge. It’s even worse to hear a lot of people transferring to other Universities only to discover that we’re not able to get credits for the majority of our first year units.

    There is a lot ignorance on behalf of VU staff as to how this is affecting students.

  10. I also left vu at the beginning of this year to study at RMIT. I used to study social work there and i am ashamed to admit that i cant remember a lot of what i learnt off the top of my head. Its something i struggle with constantly. Social work requires making decisions that could change clients lives substantially, i felt that if i stayed at vu i would enter the field as a dangerous social worker who couldn’t link theory to practice.

    Now at Rmit i finally feel comfortable that i can relearn and commit to memory subjects and theory that were heavily skimmed over at vu.

  11. I’m looking at changing Uni’s from RMIT to VU especially for the block model. I study engineering and when your head is focused in a math subject to have to suddenly switch to a different subject throws you out of the metal space. I love the idea of only studying one subject at a time. I can see concerns for more “essay” style subjects, however from a technical point of view, i learn so much better when content is condensed. Speaking with fellow students in my degree we all feel that the block model would make it so much easier.

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