Attending lectures is ‘old school’ – what else is?

A local Sunday paper had an article last Sunday titled “Is this the future of our universities?” and with a sub-heading of “Attending lectures is ‘old school’. This post is a first attempt to gather some thoughts about how the whole thinking about lectures in universities, including the notions around e-lectures in articles like this, are just so ‘old school’. So much so that what passes for “digital lectures” is pretty limited.

Crowded math course

The perception

This quote from the article summarises the thinking in the article and also held by a number of other folk

In a growing trend at campuses across the state, tech-savvy students say they no longer bother to attend lectures that are recorded and later posted online for free viewing.

Much of the initial half of the article talks about the growing trend to institutions purchasing systems like Lectopia, recording lectures and then finding students are making use of the recorded lectures and not attending the originals.

Aside: It appears Lectopia has morphed into (i.e. been acquired by) Echo 360.

I have a number of problems with this view:

  1. It assumes that the technology has created a new problem.
    The assumption seems to be that before the nasty, horrible technology arrived lectures were enjoying 100% attendance rates. Instead, it appears to be fairly widespread that purely physical lecture attendance has, for most courses, always tended to follow a standard curve. Near 100% at the start, dropping off over subsequent weeks, brief surges in attendance when assessment is due and then dropping off until the final surge at the end of term – again in preparation for final assessment.
  2. It misses the point about why students are able to do this.
    Systems like Lectopia record the lecture only. Students aren’t able to interact with the recording, at least not with the people within it. I wonder how many of the lectures recorded on Lectopia actually include activities that require interaction. Would a lecture that involves useful interaction and other activities that students find help them learn suffer the same drop in attendance? Especially if those activities can’t be experienced to the same extent with a recorded lecture.

    As an aside, George Siemens makes the point that lectures, even recorded, ones, aren’t necessarily passive. However, there are interesting and beneficial changes to the lecture approach that can be beneficial. For example, this approach at MIT.

  3. It uses anecdotal evidence.
    Standard journalism. Ring around, get a couple of people to tell you what they experienced and then generalise it. Where are the figures showing attendance before and after the introduction of technology?
  4. It accepts a whole lot of mythic understandings about the role and nature of the lecture.
    This is where I have the biggest problem with the article. It essentially accepts as given that the lecture is important, that students who miss face-to-face lectures are actually missing out on something.

Some research

The Australian Learning and Teaching Council funded a project a year or so ago that looked The impact of web-based lecture technologies on current and future practice in learning and teaching. The best source I currently know of with some reasonable research into this problem.

Students are strategic

I don’t think this finding will surprise too many people

Our findings indicated that students are quite strategic about the choices they make, basing decisions on lecture attendance around three types of factors: educational value; convenience and flexibility; and social opportunities to meet other students, exchange ideas and make new friendships.

Students evaluate the value of lectures and make pragmatic decisions about whether they’ll attend. What would happen if you were faced with the following? You find the lecturer boring, it’s the only lecture scheduled for the day, it takes you an hour to get to campus, you have assignments due, and the lecture will be available electronically. Would you go to the lecture?

Is there a better way?

The important and still incomplete question is gotten at in this quote from the report

With students being offered the technologies and choosing not to attend, some academics have begun questioning the role of lectures. At least 80% of the staff surveyed use lectures to inspire and motivate students; build conceptual frameworks; establish connections with students; use multimedia content; provide structured experiences for students; impart information and make announcements. This raise the question of whether there are more effective ways of achieving these functions.

It’s good to see some questioning of the role of lectures. But I find it disappointing that institutions still seem not to question the role of lectures or its mythic attributes. For example, with all that can be done with technology, what has been done with lectures? Use of Powerpoint presentations, some video and recording lectures in lecture theatres.

It strikes me that lecture recording sessions are horseless carriage versions of the lecture. Same idea, slightly different technology. As the ALTC report says, there must be more effective ways of using technology to achieve the educational goals. Mustn’t there?

Applying the Edupunk ethos

I’ve got a growing interest in investigating a “Edupunk” approach to “online” lectures that provides a more effective way of harnessing more modern technology to achieve educational goals. I’m hoping it’s something I can follow up on.

3 thoughts on “Attending lectures is ‘old school’ – what else is?

  1. Great post first off, I’ve shared it with my colleagues.

    Standard journalism indeed. I’m always skeptical of statements that start “in a growing trend…” without following it with any quantitative evidence.

    You hit the nail on the head. It’s not nearly as homogeneous as the article leads you to believe. One of my many hats at UNSW at the moment is to help look after Lectopia, so I’ve got some experience here (admittedly that means an element of bias too). Unfortunately this article will cater to the prevailing concern amidst opponents that recorded lectures equals decreased attendance.

    At least based on the survey that was conducted across 4 major Australian universities in 2006, this isn’t necessarily the case. The survey included students responses from University of Melbourne, UNSW, UTas, and UWA. The questions and results are available on our Lectopia support site:

    I’m not sure off hand how many students in total participated in the survey (there were 174 from UNSW), so it’s possible the sample is too small to be representative. However the results may still be of interest.

    The sections on Lecture Attendance and Lecture Experience beginning in the middle of page 4 of the second document is of particular relevance here.

    For example, based on the question “How often do you attend the live lectures?” combining the responses for “Always” and “Regularly” puts the statistics for all four institutions at over 75% of respondents.

    Anecdotally, I’ve heard that recordings are very popular amongst international students for whom English is a foreign language. Also, at least at UNSW it’s not out of the ordinary for courses to clash with one another and students having to chose to attend one at the expense of another.

    I’ve also heard of instructors completely redesigning their courses, using the recordings to deliver their lectures and then using face-to-face time for something more participatory and discursive. Unfortunately they seem to be the innovators rather than the norm – yet it’s nonetheless cause for optimism to hear.

    Certainly there will be students who use the recordings as an alternative or substitute to attending class – there’s no denying that. Then again, I didn’t go to all my classes in uni before lecture recordings were even available, and I’d imagine I’m not alone there. So I don’t think that lack of attendance can be attributed to lecture recordings alone.

    1. G’day Mike,

      Thanks for the pointer on the some figures.

      A lot of what you’ve reported and what I see in the ALTC report tends to match what I observed in the “early days” (1996/1997) of e-learning when audio lectures were being made available.

      Your post about Web conferencing and open education is one of the inspirations from some of my current thinking. Particularly the second last paragraph.

      Hope we can chat more about this as my thoughts develop.


  2. Pingback: You only get this type of education in class – mythic attributes of the lecture « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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