Physicists seek to lose lecture as teaching tool

by Stephanie Chasteen on February 6, 2012

In case you missed it there was a piece on NPR on January 1, “Physicists seek to lose the lecture as teaching tool.”

This is part of a series on education and education research that’s been ongoing, and extremely well reported, at American Radio Works.  They have a wide variety of episodes on online learning, community college, and the achievement gap.  Definitely worth subscribing to their podcast if this is your area.

A somewhat incendiary statement at the end of that podcast:

Maryland’s Redish says when he lays out the case against lecturing, colleagues often nod their heads, but insist their lectures work just fine. Redish tells them — lecturing isn’t enough anymore.

“With modern technology, if all there is is lectures, we don’t need faculty to do it,” Redish says. “Get ’em to do it once, put it on the Web, and fire the faculty.”

Indeed, the ability to put lectures online (as with MIT Open Courseware, and the Kahn Academy) clearly should make one question the value-added of a professor at the blackboard, scribbling equations.  We can watch that on YouTube.  In a great talk called “The University vs. YouTube,” Mike Eisenberg at CU Colorado insisted that we need to reinvent the university to make education relevant and worth its’ value. Here’s his abstract:

The role of the university — the physical setting, the place that students actually attend — is about to undergo seismic changes due to the presence of web-based phenomena such as iTunes U, Instructables, and YouTube. At issue is the meaning of physically-situated higher education when challenged by a vast menu of easily accessible, high quality, low cost (or free) web-based instructional materials.

This discussion will focus on a variety of themes related to this challenge. One theme involves the ways in which physical setting can be put to educational use (often by means of novel technologies): a place where students live might have features that complement, counteract, or respond to the particular affordances of web-based materials. Another theme is the way in which classroom instruction and university-level
courses might evolve in response to their web-based analogues. Part of this discussion will be devoted to brainstorming about what residential university life can and should look like in the medium-term future.

In the nearer term, we will also discuss a variety of strategies for making creative use of these resources in a variety of disciplines and classroom settings. For instance, faculty might develop “educational mashups” that combine multiple sources within a single set of course materials; or they might create a YouTube channel to display course projects or demonstrations; or they might assign students to create a
public Instructables document as an alternative (say) to a short paper.

This is an interesting argument to make — the drive to change education has economic and self-motivated incentives now.  We are not going to maintain our academic institutions by simply peddling information transmission as we always have.  We as instructors have to offer students something that makes it worth their while to come to class, such as interactive techniques.


Andy Rundquist February 6, 2012 at 2:48 pm

I think it’s been interesting how the recent Stanford experiment to teach thousands online has been mistakenly called an example of a “flipped classroom.” The people that I know who use some form of out-of-class content delivery find that class time is still the most important aspect of learning. If you free up your classroom for extended interactive activities, especially when the students have already engaged a little with the material, you have truly flipped your classroom.

Stephanie Chasteen February 6, 2012 at 11:52 pm

Interesting point, Andy. I didn’t realize that people were making that (mis)connection, that online learning = flipped classroom. In today’s session on online courses, I definitely saw that their definition of online learning was *not* doing anything other than traditional information-dissemination mode, just in an online environment. I think that’s a crying shame, regardless if the class is all-online (and so there are other ways to go beyond information-dissemination, such as online discussions), or in-person with video lectures (freeing up class time, as you say, for interactivity).

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