Pedagogical query

by on 2013-08-26 in Duck- 26 Comments

Happy first day of Fall classes, at least at my university. A question for discussion:

Is there any value whatsoever to a live lecture delivered in front of large numbers of students, given that podcasting is now sufficiently easy and ubiquitous that anyone with a laptop or a smartphone (or a digital voice recorder or camcorder) or access to those devices via a campus IT services department can do it?

I would appreciate it if we could have this discussion without appealing to any mystical or metaphysical “connection” that mysteriously arises in a live lecture hall. What, if anything, is the practical difference between watching a lecturer gesticulating at the front of the room (perhaps through the opera glasses that one needs to make out any distinguishing facial features of the lecturer at a distance) and catching the same show in the privacy of one’s own dorm room via YouTube or iTunesU or whatever? I mean, I go to concerts to appreciate the performance, not to feel mystically at one with the band. Nor can I say that I learn much from the experience, which is fine because I am not shelling out money to see Yes or Marillion or the Vienna Philharmonic play live in order to learn something. I am going for the show, and to enjoy myself, probably (given my tastes in music) in the company of other crazy fans…so the atmosphere is the experience, and essential to it. But for receiving information from someone knowledgeable? Not sure I see the point of theater seating or a mosh pit there.


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  • Colin wight

    Don’t have strong views in terms of what I think your are arguing, although the way this issue feeds into MOOCS does worry me. Some points though. Lectures are essentially a performance, and I don’t think the only role of them is to impart information but to generate enthusiasm as well. Concerts play a similar role. The ‘experience’ however that generates this enthusiasm isn’t just a function of the commitment of the crowd, as you seem to be assuming here, but it is a function of the interplay between the performers and crowd. And it’s this interplay that produces the atmosphere. Not just anyone/anything on stage generates this, and even the same players with the same crowd in the same venue can generate different atmospheres. That’s why live musical performances are generally loved so much by musicians, who feed off the atmosphere, and who struggle to try and recreate in in recordings. It also depends on how you lecture but depending on the atmosphere I extrapolate, go off script, add additional arguments if I’m getting quizzical looks, and generally adapt my performance to the crowd. It’s very difficult to do that or even achieve an atmosphere with just a film playing. That’s why in a lecture as in a musical performance the audience are linked in the performance whereas in a recording which is watched they are not connected in the sandy way. Finally, think of it a bit like the difference between sending someone an email, or walking down the corridor to say the same thing to their face

  • swbennett

    When I was a student, I always found it easier to pay attention to the lecture in a classroom setting than to podcasts. But then I went to a small, private school and never had a class larger than 30.

  • Colin wight

    Tried to edit out mistakes, wouldn’t let me on ipad. You’ll see most of them, should be ‘….same way…’ Not sandy….

  • Jon Western

    PTJ, I’ve used both approaches in the classroom. I guess the antecedent question asks what’s the purpose of the lecture? To convey information or to bring that information alive? To teach students what to think or how to learn? The other question is what are the student’s expectations and how do they learn. My sense is that there is quite a bit of variation on each of these.

    Overall, the general feedback I get from my students, and from my own self-reflection — is that while there is great flexibility in using the podcasts, the live lecture format allows me to improvise, shift focus, add emphasis, and yes, even entertain, etc… in response to the constant audience feedback. My lectures are interactive with varying blends of visual aids, Q/A, and interactive discussion. Even limited interaction in a classroom of 200 – 300 hundred can effectively engage the students to ask new or different questions of the material — especially if they feel the instructor is present and engaged and not just going through the motions.

    I find that my podcasts are sometimes relatively flat — I also enrolled in a MOOC last spring offered by a colleague and noticed that he is FAR more charismatic in person than on a detached screen. That all said, I have noticed that my podcast lectures that are drawn from lectures that I’ve given dozens of times in person, tend to be a bit more dynamic because I know where the added emphasis is needed. I guess my bottom line is that podcasts are generally ok, but are probably better coming from an experienced live lecturer.

  • naeem

    “…receiving information from someone knowledgeable”? Wow. Can you get more positivist than that? Banking theory. But at least you leave yourself a hint. Even as you attempt to block out the only important thing, you spend considerable energy engaging it, namely the metaphysical connection.

    You don’t listen to the Vienna Philharmonic to learn something?! Wow. How Cartesian of you. Body knowledge is knowledge. Dancing is knowing. Listening to Sun Ra or Keith Jarret or to PTJ give a lecture is kinesthetic experience.

    I recommend two readings: Acts of Enjoyment by Thomas Rickert and Secular Devotion by Timothy Brennan. Read and discuss.

  • anon

    My complaint with prog rock is that it’s overcomposed – some of it is so complicated that there’s little for the listener do but marvel at the musicians’ ability to get through the piece.

    Setting aside discussions of musical tastes (diff’rent strokes, diff’rent folks), that’s not a formula for a very good lecture, in my experience. I’ve been doing this for (only) a few years, and I try to avoid lecturing — but when I do have to lecture I find they go best when they’re not over-scripted. I can’t change the content of a lecture on the fly, but I can change the pace, add an example or two, change the examples, etc.

    For example: some groups “get” balance of payments pretty quickly. Other times, I need to bust out some chalk and start diagramming. If I always did one or the other, the lecture would fail half the time (either belaboring the obvious, or skating obliviously past confusion)

    I don’t know that I’d call the connection mystical, but there’s usually *some* connection.

  • Jason Weidner

    PTJ, not sure if you know this, but Nick Onuf was a helluva lecturer–incredibly dynamic. Says he picked up some things from preachers in DC. In any case, I don’t know about really large lectures, since my experience has mainly been 40 student or smaller classrooms, but I think the energy that can be generated is potentially pretty powerful and transformative. Other than than, I agree with Colin and Naeem.

  • meelar2

    I think that one benefit of a large lecture hall over a dorm-room Youtube video is that it creates a specific time and place that the student has to go in order to attend class. It focuses the mind. Compare going out to a movie theater to staying at home and watching the same movie on Netflix–odds are you’ll pay more attention at the theater, just because you can’t pause, you can’t wander away, and you feel like you went out of your way to be there so you may as well pay attention. I could be wrong–it’s certainly possible to ignore a lecture and text or gchat. But it could be one advantage.

  • Charli Carpenter

    I think your question under-rates interactivity in large lecture halls. At UMass we use clickers to do in-class surveys that generate discussion, force students to move around and/or talk to one another, and orchestrate in-class debates. The idea that 50-minutes in a large lecture hall is equivalent to watching a You-Tube video with 200 other people undersells the work that many professors do to make the material come to life.

  • Stephen Saideman

    I used to teach 600 students or so Intro to IR in one of the least forgiving lecture halls I have experienced. I am, as a result, biased, as I think I did a good job with it, making the material interesting and “alive” as Jon suggests. Improvisation, reacting to the students as they react to me and my presentation, changing the examples, adding additional ones all work better with an audience. I would sprinkle in demonstrations like six-sided tug of war or a traffic problem (does tit for tat emerge when forced to merge). I would ask some questions of the audience and get at the deeper meaning of the tractor scene in Footloose. Doing podcasts would simply not have the same level of interactivity, energy, adapability, and so on. While lecturing a huge class may not be the optimal way to deliver the material, I think it is far better than broadcasting/podcasting/whatever.

    Plus there is something else–the students become a community this way, and may carry the conversations on after class, and I do think the students learn as much from each other as from the profs. Not sure how that works when everything is on the net. It is possible but less likely.

  • Che Guevara

    would you rather see Bennie Green/Handel’s Messiah with the London Symphony Orchestra/RUSH on video, or live? Why? Why, despite downloads and everything else, why is live performing still so important and so meaningful to so many people? It’s not that different from lecturing.

    To answer the initial rhetorical question, there is something different about being there. Maybe it is metaphysical or mystical, but it clearly exists for many many people. Why would lecturing be any different? If nothing else, as a professor I can look around the room, make eye contact, and realize when things are working and when they’re not. That feedback is impossible when speaking into a camera. If the students aren’t getting it, the feedback is instantaneous — their eyes glaze over and I know I’m on the wrong track. If they are with me, the feedback is also instantaneous — their eyes are right on me. So the adjustments are there, in real time, and the interaction is real, not ephemeral.

  • zenpundit

    And as Thucydides told us, united in their grief, the Athenians dutifully downloaded the Funeral Oration from AgoraTunes….

    Modern historians frequently note the eerie parallels with the famous Gettysburg Remixes on Uniontube during the Civil War.

  • David Karp

    Good question – it definitely is NOT to watch the lecturer drone on in monotone reading a prepared text, as that definitely could happen just as effectively on YouTube (or probably even better just read in a textbook). I think as lecturers we naturally assume that the only learning that occurs is academic/scholarly. But of course part of the public good that universities provide is also the socialization / social learning that goes on in young adults over the course of usually four years. At the margins, maybe students learn from our example of public speaking, or synthesize a variety of examples, and are then better prepared to go out and give structured, dynamic, audience-engaging presentations of their own once they leave. A different, and I think actually more important, example of social learning is that students get the chance to meet and to interact with each other. That might be counter-intuitive, given the preconceptions about lectures, but in fact, “going to the lecture” is a particular kind of social interaction and situation for students. It is different both from seminars and from the rest of their lives outside the university. It gives people with common interests, who want to meet each other (even if they didn’t know it at first) a particular kind of environment — very different from a pub, or a party, or even an extra-curricular club — within which this can occur. I try to have small break-out sessions even in large lectures from time-to-time for this reason. But it can even occur before the class, after the class, when students talk to their neighbours about what they got from the lecture, what they think about the course, what they missed if they were away last time (*gasp*), etc. Yes, seminars do this too — these are the main way to facilitate students learning from each other — but slightly differently, and with a much smaller population of people. It can be a bit of a time-bomb too. Even if people don’t actually meet or talk at the lecture itself, years or even decades later as people go on in their lives, this gives them some common ground should they ever meet (“Weren’t you in Professor *****’s Politics 200 class?”). I should quickly say that of course this isn’t all there is in terms of value of the lecture. If we weren’t delivering content that genuinely assisted learning, then the lecture has much less chance of fulfilling any of these secondary functions. Which brings me back to what I said at the start about what the lecture is not. But even though it might be secondary rather than primary, I think it’s worth thinking about before we abandon the format entirely!

  • Paul Gowder

    What about really basic stuff like being able to see of the students look confused, are tuning you out, etc.?

  • W. K. Winecoff

    There’s a more disconcerting possibility: is it better to watch a video of an excellent lecturer or attend a mediocre lecture in person? That is, is it better to watch a Yes concert video or go see a drunk pub band in person?

    There are opportunity costs for attending a lecture after all. Figure it’s a 15 minute trip one-way for the modal student, so 30 minutes to just go to an from the classroom. That’s 3-4% of a student’s waking hours in a typical day and probably 1/4-1/3 of her working hours. (Note: this, among other reasons, is why I don’t go to the office every other rather than every day: 4% productivity boost simply by staying home!)

  • W. K. Winecoff

    I mean “disconcerting” in the sense that the “Yes video” option would seem to push us towards MOOCs led by excellent lecturers, who may or may not be us.

  • MAS

    My impression was that PTJ would be using the class time differently, for discussion, simulations, etc. and not just cancelling it. So the lecture is in the form of a podcast that the students listen to and then students come to class for discussion. They are travelling either way (and of course American Students are largely residing on campus or thereabouts I presume).

    I am teaching my first in person courses this semester and I do have lectures (though they may be short) in most of the class periods. My reason is that although I am not sold on lecturing (and my experiences watching my profs are quite different than what is described above. Community?) it is what I know as a TA and there is something comfortable to it. I plan on splitting my 75 minute class periods into about half lecture and half discussion, though I hope to make the lecture more interactive and cut it out completely a few times. I would hope to phase this out as I grow more confident, but for now I feel I only want to ‘experiment’ on a few things at once. So that is my wholly unconvincing argument for them.

  • W. K. Winecoff

    I’ve considered that. This semester the undergrad class I’m teaching is capped at 60 students. In the past it’s been 40. While spending time on discussion in that context is possible it’s also not easy. You could do the clicker-based call-and-response, but that’s often a form of lecture more than discussion.

    Then there’s the fact that I do not like assigning textbook readings. I think I can deliver that material more effectively in lecture. So I try to assign topical readings and save the drier stuff for lectures, where I can (hopefully) brighten it up a bit by linking to contemporary/historical events. If lecture time was spent as discussion, we’d (all 60 of us) either be discussing a textbook or the students would never learn the “basics”.

    In other courses with fewer students and no need to introduce concepts/models/whatever for the first time these constraints might not apply, and in those classes a lecture-only policy is probably not the right approach. But isn’t that something of a norm already? Most folks in this thread sound like they’re talking about teaching in Intro classes.

  • Adrienne LeBas

    As an agronomy (first) and an economics major (second) at a large state university, I actually have a fair amount of experience with both large lecture halls and recorded lectures — from the era prior to MOOCs, of course. We had the choice of watching Microecon on televisions in classrooms at our assigned section time, or we could watch it on public access television. Intro biology and chemistry classes were instead in enormous lecture halls. Even though the econ professor, Marc Rush, was famous at Florida for his charisma and weird sense of humor, I have zero memory of those lectures. The biology and chemistry lectures, however, I still have recall of snapshots or moments of them (even the one at 8am!). I strongly suspect there is a social experiential element to learning: sitting in a group of people who are focusing boosts an individual’s focus and also reinforces the unconscious sense that the information is important and should be remembered. This seems intuitive, though there’s got to be education research on how context affects cognition & recall? … So I would say, in addition to all the points previously made about how live performance might improve the quality of the performance, the two contexts create differences in reception — *even if* the reception is largely passive. I would guess. Of course, in the era of laptops and constant distractions, the focus-improving qualities of sitting in an audience might be reduced.

  • MAS

    These are good points, my response was as much to everyone else as yours, you just got lucky enough to have me write it under your response ;-)

    Anyways, I agree about text books. I would much rather give that info myself than have them read it in a textbook. Though of course I think PTJ also gives lectures, in fact I know he does, he just does them via podcast.

    And of course I have never had 60 students before.

  • Colin wight

    I ban use of laptops during lectures. I also tell them that whilst I can’t stop them doing so they’d be better of not taking notes and just listening. If they must takes notes they should only be of points of disagreement etc. they’ll get access to all the slides etc after the lecture anyway, so what’s the point of writing down what’s on the slide?

  • Adrienne LeBas

    Yep, which you obviously can’t do with an online / MOOC-style course … and we know that self-enforcing focus is difficult. I think this stuff really needs to be discussed — and, hopefully, examined with serious academic research — before we get fully on board with non-traditional teaching platforms.

  • Eric Charles

    I think if you have a prof doing a canned lecture, one which will be the same when it is given again next year, there is probably little difference. I think this questions stems from a much deeper question that most people don’t have a very good answer to: “Why do we pay researchers to teach college classes?” That is a much longer discussion, but we can get at an answer pretty quickly.

    Let’s switch out the mysticism for a metaphor: There are many ways to distinguish concert artists. One perfectly good division is into two different versions of what they give the audience. Type A tries to deliver exactly the same performance every time, and tries to make it sound as much like their previously released album as possible. Type B tries to deliver something new every time. Of course, type B doesn’t reinvent the wheel the whole time, but they change things around a bit to match various circumstances (the crowd, what’s on their mind, the weather, etc.), or just because they think something else might work better.

    I, frankly, don’t understand why anyone ever pays money to go to a concert by Type A bands. I have the album, if they are going to go on stage and reproduce the album… well… why would I pay for that? Similarly, if I was a student, and I could get every lecture online that I could get in the classroom… well…. why would I pay for that? Of course, at the concert there is an answer: You go for the crowd, and the show. At college, I don’t think there is a good answer.

    On the other hand, it is easy to see why you would pay to see a Type B band live. It is because they offer something you can’t get anywhere else. You certainly can’t buy it in a can. Usually it goes well, sometimes it flops, and sometimes it is magnificent. In any case you get to see the process of creating the thing you like. The same is true with a good lecturer. While they might not meta-narrate enough for the students to know what they are getting, they deliver ideas in the progress of creation, and the lecture changes from year to year as they and their ideas change.

    “Well,” you might ask, “why can’t we just record a new lecture every year?” I suppose that would work, but giving a new lecture in an empty room with a camera in the corner isn’t the same. My point was that, for some teachers, teaching in a particular way, there is definite value to having them generate a lecture in front of a room of students every year. I would argue that there is extra value to being there live, but I wouldn’t argue that it is a huge added value, so certainly a recording would work for people who couldn’t make it. Either way, it makes sense for students to pay to have access to a researcher who delivers this service.

  • MJ Peterson

    “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” This includes decisions about what to podcast and what to give live. Live is different; one can go with the vibe of the audience and I agree that the audience is an energizing factor. Some stuff is dry enough and just needs a technical walk-thru that podcasts of voice-over-slides videos serve best. Other stuff needs adjusting and group engagement.

    Besides, if kids just stayed in their apartments or dorm rooms, they would not meet very many people and part of going to college is to meet people (including, dare I say it, future spouses/partners). Having colleges that draw nationally for a pool of students allows a degree of social mixing we don’t get very many other ways since we don’t have an all-out mobilization a la WWII on our hands (which comes to mind for me because my parents would never have met without the WWII assemblings of people from all regions of the country together in various third locations — Avon Park (FL) Army Air Corps Base for mine).

    As to the idea people can be more productive by saving the transit time, I have another take on that. The transit time affords a chance to get outside and move the muscles. Clears the brain of accumulated cobwebs, reenergizes by allowing the chi to flow, and improved chi flow makes for more productivity. (That is something I do think the East Asians have right.)

  • Friendly guy

    I think Stephen has hit it on the head. I lecture in a big survey course, and record it as a podcast. In lecture I engage with the students – ask questions, answer them, make jokes, etc. I think the best outcomes is for students who come to class and engage with the material, and even come up and ask questions afterwards, and then use the podcasts to study.

  • Kiran Pervez

    I haven’t had the (mis)fortune of sitting in as a student in one of those 200+ sardines in a can-like classes. However, having been part of a team that taught those, I’d say that my ‘performance’ up on stage (literally…since it was in one of those theaters) was very much crafted by the interactivity I valued as a student. It helped that we had a combination of large lectures and recitation sections so that the ‘rhythm’ established ‘connectivity’ despite the ‘anonymity’ that the structure would insist upon on first sight.

    Whether I’m the ‘student’ or the ‘teacher’ flips the roles I play in a learning experience – what that doesn’t change though, IMHO, is that it’s a learning experience for all those involved. Does a podcast mean no learning will take place? Probably not. However, I suspect that those who want to be engaged will gravitate to the metaphor of traditional learning to find ways to interact and create the same metaphysical connection that would have happened in-person…or at least via a video conference.

    I guess what I’m getting at is the “sage on stage” notion that a pre-recorded podcast might suggest….I don’t want to be a passive consumer/disseminator of knowledge…I want to be engaged in a learning experience that feels…well more experiential and less “being talked at” or having to “talk at” as the case may be.

    Putting on my slightly Ludditish McLuhan hat…the medium is indeed the message. I don’t want to learn in my bed or on the comfy chair in front of my TV. I want to learn in a room with other bodies that I can sense. All of these spaces are sacrosanct for specific activities. My ‘beef’ with the way in which we, as a culture, embrace technology is the notion of overarching convenience….I don’t want my ‘professional’ experiences taking over my kitchen where I get to cook with family and loved ones. Perhaps I’m compartmentalizing but when did that get to be a dirty word?

    To be Heideggerian for a second, if teaching is “letting learn” how would a pre-recorded podcast allow for that? I’m having trouble wrapping my brains around this.