“At Oxford I learned to appreciate the great benefit of classroom dialogue between student and tutor,” said Professor Riley, who was appointed dean at the University of Sydney’s law faculty last month.
“Although we are never likely to be able to fund the Oxford tutorial teaching model in Australian law schools, we should still work towards ensuring engaged debate in classrooms.”
“The removal of caps on student university places and the emergence of massive open online courses (MOOCs) have been identified as presenting particular challenges to traditional face-to-face university courses”, Riley added.
“Straight lectures are easy to replicate online, so the classroom experience needs to offer more than just content delivery. Our challenge is to provide a classroom experience that engages students, with us and with each other, so that they value the time spent in classes.”
Riley said she believes face-to-face dialogue with teachers who undertake world-class research is crucial to a university education, and this won’t be threatened by MOOCs.
It will be particularly challenging funding that kind of experience in an environment where governments are committing less funding towards tertiary education, she added.
Her focus during her first year as dean will be on consolidating recent growth at the law school.
“It’s incumbent on us not to provide more places if we feel this will diminish the quality of educational experience we can offer,” she says.
“There is always a temptation to add new programs and courses, but it is important to bed down new initiatives before we expand further.”
Riley studied to be a teacher, worked as a journalist at Fairfax media and had two daughters before starting a postgraduate law degree at the University of Sydney in 1992.
After completing her degree she worked at King & Wood Mallesons before receiving the Ivan Roberts scholarship to study at Oxford. It was on her return home, shortly after Paul Keating had lost office and as John Howard’s Workplace Relations Act 1996 was being tabled in Parliament, that she was drawn to academia.
Co-authoring a book on that act with her mentor Greg McCarry launched Riley into a career as a labour lawyer. She later began teaching employment and industrial law and completed a PhD blending her interests in employment, equity and commercial law.
After a stint as associate professor in commercial law at the University of New South Wales, Riley returned to her alma mater as professor of labour law in 2009. She stepped into the role of pro-dean at the Sydney Law School after Gillian Triggs left to become president of the Human Rights Commission.