04 November 2009

Why lecture?

Our university started using a system to record lectures this semester called Tegrity. I’ve used it a bit, and it has some sweet features. It captures voice, video if you’re so inclined, and everything on the computer screen. Once recorded, the lecture can be viewed online, downloaded as an audio only podcast, streamed to an iPhone. My favourite feature is that all the text on the screen – whether a PowerPoint slide or something on web browser – is searchable. Can’t remember where in the lecture a technical term was mentioned? Type in the text and it’ll locate it.

First response one of my colleagues had to it:

“Just another excuse for students to be lazy.”

You might say there’s a little diversity of opinion on the subject of lecture recording. So this post by Donald Clark, with the bracing title of “Lecturing – stupidest profession?”, is timely. There are a lot of comments to read, too.

Lecturing is a weird historical artifact. To the best of my knowledge, the main reason that lecturing because a method for transferring information was that it originated before the introduction of the printing press, when there were literally not enough copies of books to go around. Despite books being widely available for centuries now, lecturing persisted. On the face of it, lecturing is stupid.

As you might be able to tell from the comments in the first paragraph, I think there’s a lot to be gained from recording lectures. The major thing is that attention, no matter how compelling an instructor might try to be, drifts. There are just times you miss a point, and even if you get it the first time, it often takes multiple times listening to something to remember or understand. And students are often unable to make a lecture due to some sort of happenstance.

On the other hand, I think there’s way more to a lecture than a YouTube video. I’ve written before about videotaped presentations:

Human beings are very good at conversation, very good at face-to-face interactions. We like it. We crave it. Trying to take the information out of that social context almost always kills it.

When I first started moving to partly online classes, I asked students if they wanted me to work up a class as a completely online class. The answer was largely, “No”: they still considered the lecture time valuable. “Face time” still matters for people, even if it looks like a simple one-way flow of information. If we were just interested in pure information transfer, we’d just give students books.

The danger for both the student and the instructor is that doing recorded lectures not because it’s a new resource for people to learn, but because it’s convenient. It’s easy for an instructor to get up and talk for an hour, and easy for students to listen. It’s not very threatening. It’s not very demanding.

Structuring lectures to take full advantage of the immediacy and social interaction inherent in the format is time consuming and hard. And university students frequently don’t want to come along for the ride. University students often got into university because they figured out how to make lectures work for them.

While my colleague considered recording lectures an excuse for students to be lazy, it’s also an excuse for instructors to be lazy.

Recording lectures is a great opportunity, but you have to do it right. It’s one thing to record a new lecture every class session of a class that is never the same way twice to give students something to review, and pre-recording a lecture once in your office with no audience and never changing it again.

1 comment:

BunchberryFern said...

Good points. A few more to add.

You're right, humans crave interaction. A problem with the 'lecturing is stupid' idea is the framing of the discussion in terms of filming supplanting face to face contact. I hope it won't.

Your example of searchable notes is fantastic. And I would also add the potential of backchannel tools, comments and the general extensibility of media, social or otherwise. Copy and paste doesn't necessarily mean lazy if you're developing a wiki or rejigging the information architecture of course materials to suit your own preferences.

Using media to lecture also means tools. The common understanding of the word 'tool' is an idea of leverage or interface. But for me tools are just as much about making things explicit and accessible.

Tools are hackable. Lincoln, Roosevelt and Luther King still reign supreme as teachers and orators. Compare this to the sheer amount of content the average modern advertising spot or opening few scenes of The Simpsons manages to (seemingly effortlessly) cram in.

Final point. Mostly bilious. Sorry - and possibly UK-specific.

I know you can't say it because of your work environment. And you might not even want to - I've noticed that good lecturers and teachers tend to be generous, dedicated people who are often tolerant of the faults of others. But the majority of lecturers I've ever had the misfortune to sit through flat-out suck.

I've had lecturers who read from their own publications. A friend at Cambridge told me his and his colleagues' standards for a 'good' lecturer was one who gave out handouts. I've heard a lecturer who said they couldn't provide students with notes because they didn't know what they were going to say until they said it. I once went to a 2-hour Statistics lecture where the lecturer realised he was delivering the wrong one about an hour in - to 150 people.

A little but of exposure to sunlight wouldn't go amiss for these people.