Are Live Lectures Becoming Redundant?

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ January 18th, 2013. Filed under: Teaching.

Online versus conventional lectures; that is the question (not asked by Hamlet). The recent issue of UBC Reports (January 2, 2013) has several senior administrators musing about the future of university education. What looms large is the assumption that online instruction may become the equal, if not the superior, mode of delivery.

My course material is now almost entirely online, and my office is virtual (via Connect and Skype). Everything in my courses (readings, lecture descriptions, word lists, bibliographies, exams, assignments) can be accessed online from the comfort of a living room or a coffee shop.

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All, that is, except for one crucial component- the lectures.

Online lectures

The next and final step would be to deliver my lectures online. But how? Most of the online courses that I have seen are text-based. The student buys the course, opens up the course modules, reads a whole lot, and then completes the assignments. Borrring. And very likely redundant, given that so much information is available online, and for free no less, starting with Wikipedia.

Lectures via webinars might be a solution, but they are tied to particular time on a calendar. Then there are the audio podcasts which involve listening to somebody reading the text of a lecture. Borrring.

The most likely candidate is the video podcast, which a student could access 24/7 until the final day of the course. It gives new meaning to the idea of cramming, where a hapless, last-minute student spends umpteen non-stop hours in front of a screen before the posted last date to complete the final exam, and hyper-ambition, where the student completes the course in 3 days of non-stop viewing and assignment completion. For students who properly pace themselves to take full advantage of the video podcast, the experience is somewhere between reality TV and a Ted lecture.

The obvious advantage of online lectures is the convenience. An online form of instruction must seem very attractive to those students who truck in from distant homes and sit row upon row to listen and make notes, especially if all they want is 3 credits and a pass so they can get on with the business of graduating and finding a job. Rote-learning is served well by this method.

Another advantage is the false sense of personalisation that comes from one-on-one lectures – you and me on your computer screen.

My third and fourth year courses require a rather large population (30-40 students) to be financially viable. In other words, they lie somewhere between the massed classes of 200 or 300, and the cozy seminars with 6 or less students around a table. They are still relatively crowded with each precious consciousness in danger of being lost in the crowd, so the lure of the video podcast is strong.

The living lecture

With all this in mind, what’s the point of lectures? Enter in, the timeless role of the teacher. University professors are certified as PhDs, Doctors of Philosophy, They frame their academic expertise in the context of a philosophical point of view.  Their real-time musings, pacing, change of mind, tangents, and other instructional ticks reflect the organic nature of their experience of the discipline. In the end, the experience of them in real time is similar to visiting say the Ryōan-ji in Kyoto, as opposed to going there virtually, online.

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Teaching reminds me of the power of oral transmission. I learned about this form of music education in Japan when I was there to learn how to play the shakuhachi. I quickly discovered that the music notation contained about 30 per cent of the information needed to perform each piece. The other 70 per cent was supplied by instruction from the teacher (sensei). In the process of instruction, sometimes by demanding nothing more than direct imitation, the teacher insured that the spirit of the music was conveyed, as well as the technical requirements.

The drudge of the commute and the inconvenience of the scheduled visits to the campus are offset by the experience of the teacher first-hand. Think of the difference between a CD or video production of a pop star’s music, versus the live experience of seeing them on stage. Or more cogently, and relevant to WAM (Western Art Music) students, imagine learning to play the piano or whatever instrument from self-help manuals or online instruction, using the notation that is readily available in any music store, versus living lessons.

But the 21st century teacher must not slip back to the 20th century where instructors simply downloaded factoids, to be uploaded on a written exam later. Millennials want experiences before facts. University instructors must also come to grips with the reality of 21st century presentations where the entertainment industry inevitably influences public talk. Even if a teacher is not charismatic, they need to explore the kind of personal development that comes from instruction similar to good old Dale Carnegie, or Toastmaster Clubs.

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Gone are the days (I hope) where students are required to overlook eccentric, even anti-social behaviour in a teacher in order to glean the expertise encased in the teacher like gold in dross.

My particular solution to the challenge of teaching in the 21st century is to blend live lectures with student presentations and end-of-the-week tweets (in Connect) where students can speak their minds about the course.  And just to make it worth the time, I make those weekly contributions worth a mark towards the final mark. Does it get any better than that? If so, please send me a line using the comment function, below.


Anne Dhu McLucas (2010) The Musical Ear: Oral Tradition in the USA

James A. Davies, editor (2012) The Music History Classroom

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