The future of lectures

Dear colleagues,

Lectures have long been a mainstay of university teaching. What is their future? Are there better ways to help students learn?

These thoughts were inspired by reading about free online classes now offered by Stanford, Princeton and other elite universities, with lecturers by leading scholars. There are also many stand-alone talks by scholars available on YouTube.

When you stop to think about it, it doesn't matter whether the free online lectures are by prominent academics or by unknown ones. The key is whether they are done really well. With more choice available, listeners will gravitate to lectures they find most informative, entertaining or inspiring.

Let's face it, few people who want to learn about a topic choose to attend a series of lectures - unless they are attached to some form of credit or accreditation. Imagine that you want to learn more about some topic you're unfamiliar with. Do you think of asking to attend your colleagues' lectures?

In any case, with free online classes, the competition in lecture quality is likely to increase. It can be challenging to try to perform better than others who have polished their topic and delivery, and who perhaps have ample resources to support the lecturing and video production.

If great lectures are available free, what is the value-added of local teaching? The obvious answer is personal attention and class interaction. It may be hard to compete on delivery of information, because there are so many sources now available, but assisting students to learn is something that remote delivery systems will have a hard time reproducing.

This led me to think about the value of lecturing in the first place. I recently pulled out an old file of mine with articles and notes about lecturing. There, staring me in the face, was information about how lectures compare to other teaching modes, such as reading. The answer: not very well. In terms of information transfer, listening to lectures is no better than unsupervised reading. In terms of other educative goals, such as encouraging reflection and deep learning, lecturing is definitely poorer.

These findings have been around for decades, but have been ignored by most universities. (Did you imagine that university education is evidence-based?) They have been able to ignore the research because students are a captive market. If they want a degree, they have little choice except to jump through the hoops of whatever institution they chose and - here is a key point - most universities use the same methods.

Lecturing remains a standard part of academic teaching in part because of institutional momentum. The timetable and academic workloads are built around a presumption of having lectures. But there must be more to it. One factor is that lectures are symbolic of the role of teacher as authority in a field.

Again, what is the value added by lectures when students can read about the topic in textbooks and articles by leading scholars? None, really, except that students are encouraged, and sometimes forced through attendance or assessment requirements, to acquiesce to the content and delivery style of the lecturer. This raises the status of the lecturer, but does it improve student learning?

In tutorials, laboratories, field trips, online chats, projects and other learning modes, the teacher is more a facilitator than an authority. Content knowledge is important but equally or more important are skills in encouraging learning, often through student-student interaction. Skills in facilitating learning are vital, and just as difficult to acquire and refine, as content knowledge, but are not visibly authoritative in the same way as lecturing.

None of this is meant as a criticism of the efforts of teachers in being good lecturers. I know that many of you do outstanding work and inspire your students. The issue is one of preparing for the future.

In light of online competition, it makes sense to gradually move in the direction of less lecturing and more encouragement of other modes of learning. This would position us as a desirable learning venue in a world with a surfeit of quality lecturing available free.

The counterpoint would be to encourage our top scholars and/or speakers to make more of their best performances available free online. This is a way of attracting audiences and, most likely, attracting students and possibly research and consultancy opportunities. By the same token, we could encourage writing of textbooks (incorporating photos, audio and video), made available free online to attract readers.

If we turn to the mundane issue of workloads and timetables in the light of these considerations, one implication would be to gradually cut back on the number of lectures. If costs are too high, then rather than cutting back on tutorials, we would be better prepared for future trends by reducing or abolishing lectures. The bonus: improved student learning.

Moving away from lectures seems like a good idea to me, but it's hard to see it happening at Wollongong, given the entrenched systems of timetabling, workload agreements, classrooms and syllabi. It's a pity, because some innovation, or even just openness to innovation, could see Wollongong positioned as an exciting educational destination in the new world in which online learning resources are abundant.

2 October 2012

Thanks to Kate Bowles, Narelle Campbell, Rae Campbell and Ben Morris for useful feedback on a draft.

A classic reference: Donald A. Bligh, What's the Use of Lectures? (Penguin, 1972).

Graham Gibbs, "Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing", SCED Occasional Paper No. 8, Birmingham, 1981.

"Many lecturers are unaware of even the existence of evidence on the use of lectures, let alone what conclusions the evidence leads to. However, many of the clearest findings are easy enough to observe in one's own teaching: students' lack of attention after half an hour, the inadequacy of their notes, their poor memory for the content of the lecture - evident in subsequent tutorials and their even poorer understanding. It sometimes surprises me that more lecturers have not spontaneously abandoned lecturing as a consequence of their everyday experience, regardless of their ignorance of the literature."

"But do alternatives to lecturing necessarily involve greater workloads? No, they do not."

"Many alternatives to conventional lecture courses involve teachers taking on a different and less authoritative role: as a facilitator, or manager of resources, for example. For many of us this is a direct threat to our identity and self-image."

"There are a number of disincentives and obstacles to the introduction of innovations and alternatives to conventional lecture courses which are beyond an individual's power to avoid. Unless these are removed, the likelihood of more efficient teaching methods being adopted will be greatly reduced."

"Only when understanding and application of knowledge are made criteria, and when students who can only recall factual information are failed, will the inadequacy of lecture-based courses be clearly highlighted."

Earl Bardsley, "Why all the lecturing - and scribbling - must stop", Campus Review, 21-27 October 1993, p. 8

"With so many disadvantages in the traditional system, we should admit that the real reason for not providing complete take-away course details is that we know hardly anyone would turn up to our lectures (this in itself speaks volumes about how students would prefer to receive their information)."

"If the administrators of a university still think their students want to come to take notes, a rude shock may await when the competition across town advertises complete course contents available to students at the start of the next academic year."

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