August 24, 2006

Traditional lectures are over. Again.

In the Times Higher on 11th Aug (p5) there's another piece about the use of audio, video, iPods and mobile phones in university teaching. If you're being charitable, it's an optimistic, excited piece; if you're not, it's a little bit hyperbolic.

"The days of traditional lectures are over," predicts Carl Senior, a lecturer in cognitive neuroscience at Aston University. [...] "Universities are essentially service providers, and we are defined by the consumer. Our consumers are going to want to watch vodcasts and listen to podcasts in their pyjamas. We believe that what we are doing in Aston is pretty unique and at the absolute cutting edge of modern teaching methods."

What they are doing, in fact, is creating short audio and video clips which can be sent to mobile phones, though the article is curiously contradictory about what the purpose of these clips is. It says "they will, for example, summarise lectures and offer a digest of the following week's reading material". That would be the same lectures whose days are over, then, would it?

I'm particularly tickled by this suggestion:–

Physics undergradates might, for example, receive a text explaining Ohm's law

I would love to see an explanation (as opposed to just a statement) of Ohm's law in 160 characters. Any physicists out there care to have a bash?

As I've said before, I'm not persuaded of this assertion that video or audio on portable devices or home computers is likely to displace lectures. I can believe that they might usefully augment traditional teaching, but if you were offered a course predicated on the exciting idea that there would be no lectures, just vodcasts for you to watch in your pyjamas, would you really regard it as an improvment? Is this actually what our consumers (bleurgh) want?

Elsewhere in the article, Gilly Salmon at Leicester university is more cautious about the effect that podcasting may have had on a course. She says:–

[The podcasting pilot] helped to raise the pass rate for an engineering module by between 2 and 3 per cent.

Enquiring scientific minds might wonder how this figure was measured. Professor Salmon wisely includes the phrase "helped to", implying presumably that the effect was actually somewhere between zero and 3 per cent. But was there a control group? What other factors might also have helped? Is this data based on repeated trials, or just a one–time change between last year and this year? What's the average change in the pass rate from one year to the next over the last few years?

I'm being a bit harsh on people whose enthusiasm and commitment to trying new things is something I admire. But I do wonder what the best way to evangelise new and interesting approaches to teaching is, and where on the continuum from caution to hyperbole one should aim for. The THES, of course, wants stories which are dramatic and full of bold assertions, so it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that they've cherry–picked the best quotes from much longer, more measured observations that their subjects provided.


- 3 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Chris Doidge

    Yeah, the danger is that Aston University is pushing this "what the consumers want" stuff when what they really mean is "it's cheaper". I don't know of any students on my course that would have preferred audio/video lectures over the real thing. Except for when the lecturer was exceedingly dull and then they could have fast–forwarded through it… For us, the A/V element was a useful addition (part of our core reading in the first year was a video lecture given by a lecturer so famous he would never have given it at Warwick), but certainly didn't replace the real thing.

    24 Aug 2006, 11:48

  2. Nick Howes

    "vodcast"?? Honestly…

    24 Aug 2006, 16:20

  3. Brittney Douglass

    Im doing a senior project on unconventional teaching methods…..lets talk.

    19 Sep 2006, 20:08


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