Death of the lecture: have the reports been greatly exaggerated?

“Most people who know me know that I would argue vigorously that the traditional lecture is dead. But that’s when I’m being provocative.”
So give us your more nuanced view, Mitch Parsell

“There is something about a lecture that can engage students.  It’s the enthusiasm more than anything. From the outside, a lot of academia can seem just so theoretical and so distant from the real world. But when you’ve got a lecturer who is fully engaged with the material, and who is completely enthusiastic about it and can explain the applications of it, students can pick up on that.  But they are not going to travel an hour just for that five minutes of enthusiasm.”

“If all you’re doing in your lecture is delivering information then yes, the lecture is dead. If the internet has taught us anything, it’s that people prefer to have information delivered online if it’s entirely possible.  So if all you’re doing in your lecture is delivering information, you should get rid of the lecture. There’s no reason for it and students won’t come anyway, we already know that.”

“Of course, many lecturers don’t just deliver information. Mathematics is a great example: there is a huge difference between seeing a completed proof, and watching someone prove something and talking that through. So they are not just delivering information, they are actually modelling the kind of processes that they want their students to do. Very very different.”

So how would you replace the lecture then?

“Use a variety of mediums.  I’m a big fan of short introductory videos, no more than 3-4 minutes, for each topic.  Introduce the topic, say why it’s so important, how it fits into the rest of the unit.  Then move to pre-recorded audio, perhaps with the accompanying slides, to deliver much of the information.”

“I’m  also a big fan of the flipped classroom approach, where you deliver as much of the content as you possibly can ahead of time .  Then you use the face-to-face time for problem-solving, for asking questions, for engaging students in a way that goes beyond the mere delivery of information.”

Michael Cavanagh uses another approach, the Lectorial model, where first you deliver content, then students break into groups to discuss, and then come back and report. That can be used really effectively even in relatively large classes. I guess the most students I’ve used it with is 100 – 150.  It works amazingly well, although when you get them to break into groups it’s hard to get them to come back, because they are so excited.

What about online-only offerings.  Is it possible to properly engage students in that format?

“Of course. We’ve been doing it at Macquarie for 10 years or more through OUA.  It is more difficult, and it needs to be designed differently, so that the interactions occur through the LMS more directly.  I’m in favour of asynchronous engagement for these students because many of them the reasons that they are doing it this way is that they are time-poor, or that they are separated by vast distances so it’s very difficult for them to meet at a particular time.”

“The literature tells us that one of of the main reasons that students who are studying via distance drop out – and they drop out in vast numbers – is the sense of social isolation.  It’s really really important at the start to allow students to make some kind of social connection. Previously when I ran the Philosophy programs for OUA, we spent at least the first week just on ice-breakers.”

Is that more so for first year students engaging with online learning?

“Engaging first-year students with online learning is achievable, but it requires serious consideration. You also need to think about the alternative.  If the alternative is sitting in a lecture theatre with 600 other students, is that going to be any better for them?  The transition from high school classroom to large lecture is going to be just as hard as the transition to studying online.”

What do you think the implications are for online and blended learning of the strategy proposed by Macquarie’s new Learning and Teaching Green Paper?

“I think the Green Paper is attempting to predict the pressures that are forcing us in a certain direction anyway, and ensuring that we are in a position to be able to respond to those.”

“For students who are physically at the university, it would be a shame to get rid of the tutorials and pracs, the things that allow them to engage with the material in a more meaningful, applied way.  It seems really clear that students desire more of the information delivered via the internet, but they still appreciate the face-to-face time and the ability to interact with academics in smaller groups.  And I think the Green Paper is pushing us towards that, and in fact even beyond that – such as the move towards internships. It’s adding value to the content that we can deliver as academics but in a way that until recently we haven’t done so well.”

Mitch Parsell is Associate Dean Learning and Teaching in Macquarie University’s Faculty of Human Sciences.

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