OPINION – Macau’s gaming culture hits higher education

Macau Business | September 2021

Keith Morrison – Author and educationist

Observe how intensely gamblers watch the roulette wheel, the tumbling dice, the slot machine and the next card, as they risk their money and take a chance. They are hooked. Such behaviour is pervasive: many of Macau’s higher education (HE) local students take a chance with their effort and performance, but make it a low risk affair, ensuring sufficient return for least investment.  

At the start of a new academic year, if only standards of Macau’s local HE students would rise. Many of them play the game of chance, seeing how little they can do in order to pass, doing just enough to get by with poor performance. Too many do not push themselves, even calculating how many sessions they can miss before failing by non-attendance, i.e. passing just by turning up. They game the system, and why? Because they can get away with it. How is it that they can do this; how can they pass with minimum expenditure of effort and poor performance?  

Expectation theory, the self-fulfilling prophecy and research evidence have told us for decades that teacher expectations affect student performance. Why do so many teachers in Macau’s HE institutions have low expectations of students and put up with poor performance and low quality work from them? Why don’t they award a well-deserved failure grade? (Of course, we know why: they get into trouble from bosses and become unpopular if they fail students or make too many (legitimate) demands on them; word spreads that they are GPA killers.) 

There are also thousands of instances of teachers gaming Macau’s HE institutions. They set games for students instead of teaching. Why do HE students play games in class, rendering classrooms like amusement parks and entertainment centres, providing instant gratification, all in order to keep the troops happy and ‘engaged’: the buzzword of the moment? What monstrous infantilization is that?  

Why do HE teachers bend over backwards to make learning fun? Some learning might be fun, but a huge amount of it is not. I do not subscribe to the view that learning in HE should always be fun, easy or pleasurable. It is not; rather, much of it is hard, challenging, difficult, and demanding; good. I tire of seeing endless classroom PowerPoints which are poor proxies for teaching, full of smiley faces, thumbs-up signs, clasped hands, cartoon figures, funny photographs, and emoticons of every wretched hue; nor am I impressed with the well-worn comment that a picture is worth a thousand words. Words matter; thinking verbally matters. 

Macau’s HE teachers give marks for class participation. Why? Of course, they say that it recognizes and rewards effort, engagement, motivation, but surely we should be grading students on what they know and can do, not on how loudly they squawk their opinion of such-and-such, or how much they talk. Until I find a fair, impartial, valid, and reliable way of operationalizing uniformly, and routinely applying, agreed criteria for class participation, which takes account of, and respects, the multitude of different ways of participating and learning, including silently, individually, intrapersonally as well as interpersonally, then I shall not use it.  

If I could see, without any doubt or exception, that the criteria, indicators and evidence used for causally linking class participation to learning and developing knowledge are simultaneously secure, valid, consistently reliable, fairly and evenly applied on a routine basis, equitable, and useful, then I would include it in assessing students. I am still awaiting that day. I have seen countless examples of class participation being abused, as a way of ensuring that all students pass, topping up marks so that nobody fails, and lecturers and students have an easy life: collusion prevents recrimination. As Alice in Wonderland put it: ‘everybody has won and all must have prizes’. 

I am unimpressed by those who declare that we should always defer to students’ wishes and not make demands on them, that we should be ‘nice’ and ‘gentle’ (words that I have seen being used in Macau’s HE). How about ‘being firm’ and ‘holding to high standards’? Having students as consumers controlling the agenda, who must never be upset and who are fragile flowers who need to be protected, does not ring true. Learning in HE is much more than a game of chance or low-level investment. Widespread grade inflation lets many Macau HE students think that they are better than they really are. Demand more of them; fail more of them if necessary.