Thursday, 15 May 2014

In Which I Lecture You About Lectures

As someone who is on record as thinking university lectures are overused and often very poorly put together, I read Donald Clark's Guardian piece with some interest.  Alas, interest does not imply approval, nor in this case, does it preclude disappointment. Throughout the article there's a refusal to separate problems lectures come with built-in and problems caused by bad lecturing. Take this quote for example:
Imagine if a movie were shown only once. Or your local newspaper was read out just once a day in the local square. Or novelists read their books out once to an invited audience. That's face-to-face lectures for you: it's that stupid.
Jeebus, those are some terrible analogies right there. Even if we bypass the fact that movies and novels don't fulfil the same roles as newspapers - let's just consider the strict subsets of documentaries and novels with some genuine thesis underlying them  - if a novelist divided their reading into twice-weekly chunks which came attached to group discussion and small Q&A sessions, there's a hell of a lot one could learn from that approach.  The problem isn't the effectiveness of the lecture as a tool, it's whether the surrounding context supports that tool, and whether the lectures themselves are of the necessary quality. For instance:
What's even worse is that, at many conferences I attend, someone reads out an entire lecture verbatim from their notes. Is there anything more pointless? It's a throwback to a non-literate age. I can read. In fact, I can read faster than they can speak. The whole thing is an insult to the audience.
That's where the problem is.  Not that lectures are used, but because there's a distressing number of academics who don't bother to distinguish between reciting notes and teaching students.

The same problem surfaces when we get into Clark's 10 reasons for why lectures allegedly suck.  Points 5 to 9 are probably reasonable criticisms of lectures in general, though 6 ignores the fact that other sessions exist in university courses to combat that problem (see above), and 8 and 9 are at worst double-edged swords - the benefits to peer communication of putting people in the same room at the same time to experience the same lecture should be entirely fucking obvious.  Points 2, 3 and 10 are entirely aimed at poor lecturing technique, with 2 and 10 in particular not even remotely being solved by switching to pre-recorded lectures (in fact, those problems might be exacerbated), and point 4 is similarly unsolvable by the proposed switch to MOOCs and the like. Point 1 is just point 3 reworded so as to look smarter by mentioning the Babylonians.

Out of the 10 points, it's really only 5 and 7 that definitely hit home as reasons why lectures are fundamentally flawed, as oppose to far too often delivered by gitlizards. The ability to take in lectures at one's own pace is incredibly important, and by insisting otherwise lecturers are guilty of ableism.  I'm perfectly happy with the idea that lectures should be recorded. Indeed, plenty of students do so here at my current place of employment, though I'm entirely receptive to an argument that we should be doing it ourselves with visual as well as audio (generally the students only record my voice) and sticking it up online after the event.  But whilst as educators (as well as minimally decent human beings) we should make every effort to ensure those who can't get the most from a live lecture as we'd like are in no way disadvantaged by that, the general benefits of delivering material to groups of people who can interact with each other and you immediately afterwards (I can't remember the last time I gave a lecture which didn't then lead to some short but useful conversations with students just after finishing up) are real and shouldn't be wished away, in the same way that realising some people require Braille isn't a sensible argument for giving up on printing presses.

Every approach has its advantages and its limitations. Supplementation and variation are the approaches we need to focus on. And if too many academics can't even deliver a half-decent lecture (and I am as disgusted as anyone by the fact that so many can't) we need to teach them to do it better lectures, or kick them to the curb. Because these goobers can't manage a lecture, how can we trust them to deliver anything more involved [1]? We can't make teaching better without making better teachers, even if we try to rely on the online causes that Clark just so happens to make his shekels slapping together.

[1] I'd also like to point out the irony in Clark trying to sell academics on the idea that MOOCs would reduce the amount of time they spend teaching instead of researching, when it's exactly that attitude of seeing teaching as an impediment to research that leads to shitty lecturers in the first place.


Tomsk said...

Point 9 I've always thought is one of the best arguments for live lectures because being forced to learn to a common schedule requires much less continuous motivation than learning "at your own pace".

I wonder if the debate echoes the difference between recorded and live music. You can buy a perfect recording to listen to at your convenience but people are still happy to shell out to see live music. I don't see MOOCs posing more of a threat to traditional courses than the Open University has done in the past, which was after all more or less the same idea.

Ps On a not unrelared note congratulations on your new job!

SpaceSquid said...

Experience has certainly taught me that the students who most loudly complain about having to attend lectures on an imposed schedule are the ones I would trust the very least to show the discipline needed to teach themselves in their own time.

I'm not sure about the Open University analogy, simply because it's become so much quicker and easier to maintain contact between students and teachers than in the good old days of taping lectures overnight. But of course you're right that MOOCs are far less innovative than those who hawk them would like to admit.

And thanks very much. Looking forward to explaining statistics to students again rather than clinicians. It's so much easier to punish them when they ignore you.