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.

Learning spaces: expenditure and time spent learning

I’ve just been listening to this podcast of a keynote by Dr Phil Long. Apart from the content of the talk, this is interesting because Dr Long has just recently started work at the University of Queensland (which is just down the road from here) at the Centre for Educational Innovation and Technology.

There is much good content. I particular recommend listening through the question and answer section at the end for a story about a “student/teacher” relationship that is very inspiring.

The bit that sparks this post is also in the question and answers at the end and is interesting to me because of a nascent idea I have for some experimentation. When talking about the future of university campuses, Dr Long suggests that classrooms will become marginal and goes onto say

Most institutions, when it comes to infrastructure, spend 8 of 10 dollars on physical classroom infrastructure, and if you do any study on where students learn you will find that less than 7% of the time when they are working on class related work happens in that box. How do you spend 80% of your dollar on where students are spending 7% of their time?

There’s a growing interest at my current institution in the question of learning spaces, though much of the interest I’ve seen so far seems to be stuck about 5 years ago. The nature of my current institution is such that for a large proportion of our students, the 7% figure would actually be 0%. In some cases, a large number of our students never set foot on a campus.

And yet, much of our expenditure, our concerns, our learning and teaching practice and our management and workload calculations are built around the assumption of the classroom. Even though it is increasingly problematic.

It’s as if, in the words of Postman, that the lecture and its associated goods and chattels continue to be mythic.