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University Lectures are Over, says Donald Clarke. But he would say that wouldn’t he?

Just read an article in the Guardian Education called “Ten reasons we should ditch university lectures” by Donald Clark, the Chief Exec of an e-learning company. Here are some of his claims, followed by my responses.

DC Here are 10 reasons why face-to-face lectures just don’t work:

GF Here are 10 reasons why the ‘arguments’ put forward by Clarke, in this article, which is really just an advert for his elearning company, which should not be appearing in the Guardian Education) are rubbish.

1. Babylonian hour
We only have hours because of the Babylonian base-60 number system, which first appeared around 3100 BC. But it has nothing to do with the psychology of learning.

1* This applies to clock time in general. It is no argument against lectures which can be as long or short, or staccato or continuous as the lecturer makes them.

2. Passive observers
Lectures without engagement with the audience turn students into passive observers. Research shows that participation increases learning, yet few lecturers do this.

2* Paying attention to what is being said is not ‘passive’ and is an important skill in itself. That said, audiences in a real time lecture don’t have to be passive at all. Lecturers can respond to their audiences. One colleague of mine canvasses tweets and texts from students during the lecture. This kind of spontaneous interaction is not possible in a Video. So online lectures will be worse than real time live lectures in these respects.

3. Attention fall-off
Our ability to retain information falls off badly after 10-20 minutes. In one study, the simple insertion of three “two-minute pauses” led to a difference of two letter grades in a short- and long-term recall test.

3* If this is true, the answer is that pauses and changes of tack can be introduced into real time lectures. It is not a reason for abandoning live lectures in favour of online videos. On the other hand, it might also be good to challenge and stretch the attention spans of students, so they improve their stamina.

4. Note-taking
Lectures rely on students taking notes, yet note-taking is seldom taught, which massively reduces the effectiveness of the lecture.

4* Note taking is a useful skill that can be acquired. I tell my students not to take notes if it stops them concentrating, because they can review the handout or lecture slides later. Though I do record some lectures, I find that the fact that a lecture is a live, one off performance, encourages students to listen with attention.

5. Disabilities
Even slight disabilities in listening, language or motor skills can make lectures ineffective, as it is difficult to focus, discriminate and note-take quickly enough.

5* Measures can be, and are as a matter of routine, taken to aid students with slight disabilities. Such disabilities will also make it harder for those students to focus on online material. So this ‘objection’ is otiose.

6. One bite at the cherry
If something is not understood on first exposure, there is no opportunity to pause, reflect or seek clarification. This approach contradicts all that we know about the psychology of learning.

6* Lecturers can field questions, and respond to their audiences reactions. Performances are responsive. Videos are not. Besides a lecture is one of a series of several bites at the cherry. It is often preceded by the posting of on-line materials, and in many cases followed up with posting online of slides or handouts. Very often seminars follow on from lectures on particular topics.

7. Cognitive overload
Lecturers load up talks with too much detail, with the result that students cannot process all the information properly.

7*. Sometimes, Sometimes not. Besides this fault can equally apply to online material.

8. Tyranny of location
Students have to go to a specific place to hear a lecture. This wastes huge amounts of time, especially if they live far away from campus.

8* Students will always live and work in an environment where they have to be somewhere for something at a particular time, so having the discipline to attend lectures is good for them.

8** Students like to be on campus to be with and to study alongside other students. Most campuses provide student accommodation to facilitate this. Education is a social event, and is the better for being so.

9. Tyranny of time
Students have to turn up at a specific time to hear a lecture.

9* Ditto. You make this sound like a bad thing.

10. Poor presentation
Many lecturers have neither the personality nor skills to hold the audience’s attention.

10* Hence, those bad lecturers will make poor on-line material. However at least in a live lecture they will have the opportunity to hold the attention of an audience. The audience for on-line lectures is mainly out of their reach.

I’m not saying we should not record lectures or that elearning cannot be useful. But the thought that online lectures will replace live real-time university lectures is a fantasy, like the paperless office. Certainly Clarke gives  no reasons here to think anything of the kind. The lecture has its place. Even the rather one dimensional read-out lecture has its place, although these are the exception not the norm. Like everything else in life, lectures and lecturers are changing as technology opens up new avenues. Clarke should go to some.

 

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Comments

Jonathan
Reply

Absolutely agree.

And, as a former student that attended philosophy lectures at Sussex, I found them to be quite the opposite of everything that Clarke has claimed (and I am by no means the only one).

In fact, I still recall my lectures at Sussex with the very fondest regard. I still have all of my written notes, and Dr. Finlayson’s 19th & 20th Century European Philosophy lectures still have me pouring over the texts, thinkers, and the topics we covered.

Good lectures can really put you on a path.

The point made about education as a social event is also significant. My memories of JGF lectures were of a cauldron of enthusiasm, in which we all threw ideas around, wrestled with them, and then came away wanting to hit the pub/coffee shop and discuss them further (it was pretty Socratic in that sense!). The lectures helped create a mini learning community, and we were all the better for it.

When I consider the profound effect the lectures had on me, and then reflect upon the dozens of online lectures I have trawled through (Geuss’ Nietzsche lectures being the one notable exception), it seems all too obvious that there is so much lost when something so inherently ‘live’ is rendered digital (the reasons for this being too lengthy to unpack here).

Not only should this Clarke fella attend a few lectures, but he could do much worse than sit in on some Sussex Philosophy/SPT of an afternoon.

They were some of the best afternoons I ever had!

All the best.

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