Blog Post

Lecture, Online, F2F, P2P, MOOCs? Great Learning/Teaching Isn't Binary

My colleague Mohamed Noor wrote a delightful piece about what his students have learned and what he has learned from a "flipped classroom" model that has changed his genetics and evolution lectures, to 400+ students:    I especially love his comments about how creating a MOOC and then requiring his face to face students to take the MOOC and then come to class to do other assignments and data sets and problems in small groups has changed his idea of his own role as a teacher.  


On Facebook, when I posted Mohamed's piece, a friend who happens to be a brilliant and dazzling and charismatic lecturer protested that his students get angry and feel cheated if he doesn't lecture.   I've had that experience too . . .and yet I've also read all the research on what people "actually" learn from a lecture.   They can learn some general content pretty well.  And we know they can be inspired for a lifetime.   That is one of the best results of our human tendency to enjoy learning things and experiencing things in collective settings--we pray, watch movies, enjoy sports, listen to music, and are inspired by learning often in crowds.   But lectures to huge groups are pretty good for "teaching to the test" and pretty terrible for measurable improvement in such things as writing skills, oral communication skills (obviously), collaborative skills, problem solving, critical thinking, or even actual making. 

You need small group interaction, learning by doing, feedback, and other forms of interaction for true "applicability" (the ability to take content and apply it to other situations and not just to a test page) or "translation" (the ability to take an idea and express its wider implications in ways not already said by the lecturer).  And it is terrible at skill-building.  You don't learn tennis or golf--or writing or critical thinking--from hearing someone else who is great at those things tell you about those things.  You just do not.   (If you are going to argue with me on this much-replicated research, I'm going to taunt you back by saying do you want the pilot on your next flight to have learned from a lecture or by incremental lessons behind a simulator, in a plane with instructors, logging lots of flying time, being a copilot, and then finally getting into the driver's seat.  Duh.  That's a silly and extreme example but you get my point.)


On the other hand, I am not convinced that the lecture has to go.   We all remember the greatest lecture or sermon or concert or event that changed our way of experiencing the world--and the presence of others similarly moved heightened that experience.  A great lecture can make us aspire as well as help us to be inspired.


But these do not have to be binaries.   With a crowd as large as 6000, for example, I have done the simple think-pair-share experiment, learned from a second grade teacher long ago, that takes the lecture and turns it into a buzzing, interactive, engaged experiment:     It works.  And in most classes now, at some time in the period, either at the beginning or to sum up at the end or somewhere in the middle when attention is lagging, I have students get out their very advanced t-p-s technology (index cards and writing implement) and I'll set up a 2 minute t-p-s exchange that enlivens us all and, we know from the research, enhances all the skills in which lectures are lacking.


I'm also inspired by my friend Jonathan Sterne's use of the one-page "crib" that he allows his students to make for all of the multiple choice, machine gradable type exams he gives in his huge lecture classes on music.   He lets students bring in a one-pager on one-side 8 1/2 by 11 inch signed piece of paper on which they can write anything they want that they believe will help them take the exam. They basically reorganize the semester's course content in one page, in any way they think will help them on an exam.  He then collects these pages at the end.  He could make an art installation with the amazing ways students fine to cram as much information on one sheet as possible.   Guess what?   The exam may be the only sane way to grade that many finals in a short turnaround exam deadline . . . it's the one-pager the students prepare for themselves in handwriting (he insists on the handwriting) that is their real learning.  And since real learning is what he is dedicated to, he has found a simple, easy, great device to give his students the opportunity to learn in an engaged, categorizing, complex and critical and creative thinking way.  Brilliant.

The point is that great teaching and great learning can happen in lots of different ways.  You don't just need MOOCs. 


HASTAC has been dedicated for over a decade now to new modes of learning, which is to also say new modes of teaching:   we all should take responsibility as teachers of ourselves and one another.   Given the cataclysmic changes to the ways we all now learn, gather information, and spread information without benefit of an editor or publisher or teacher or expert, we need to be thinking about ways of teaching that help us to learn online in the best, most creative, and most fruitful ways, with tools that help us to make the most of the world we live in now.   Peer-learning, peer-exchange, learning from feedback, learning how to give feedback well are immeasurably important to the world we live in.   Unfortunately, lectures do not do much to enhance those increasingly necessary skills.  We need to do something as a counterforce to trolls (whether they occur online or in certain public places, such as in elected office, one might say, where we hardly have models for the potential liberating power of engaged, thoughtful, and civil exchange.  Sigh.). 


Please use this space to share with us creative ways you've found to instill the lecture with new ways and modes of learning.   The ones I've given above cost next to nothing--index cards, pencils, a sheet of paper.   Or you can go the online flipped classroom mode that costs a lot and requires bandwidth.  Both offer sound and inspiring possibilities.  Neither simply condemns the lecture as bad.  


Everything we do in life is a "workaround" of something else.  That includes teaching and learning.   Let us hear your workarounds! 




1 comment

Over forty years ago I worked with a friend at a new community college in what was then considered an "Open College." The key principle of the college was to counsel incoming students to document what they know on entry, and to adapt that knowledge to advanced or recovery placement in coursework. The model encouraged students from other institutons to finish in less than the standard two years, since it was a new college in Boston, where there were loads of other, older, and more established models doing quite well. The point was to finish as soon as possible the requirements for an Associates' degree, and then to move on to career or more college.

About a decade later that college retreated from that model, in part because they didn't want to lose the enrollment, but also because there was a less critical need for acceleration - others were doing it, and a two year degree was still pretty quick.

Today, the problem the Open College faced is worse than it was 40 years ago: too many "recovery" courses producing too few "recovered" students, and early dropouts from grades 9 through 16 (as your blog two weeks ago described). My personal belief is that this largely reflects the test driven and ruthless obsessions in many quarters with "content" and "pre-requisites." At Olin College, in Needham, MA, for an opposite example, an entire enginneering college has no pre-requisite for any course, presuming that students can find out what they need when they find out what they need to know something to solve a problem (Just-In-Time Learning we used to call it).

And so, today, were we to "flip" the college rather than the classroom, we could capture the benefits of the old Open College in a New U - one that capitalizes (both educationally and financially) on the MOOCs as the colleges themselves capitalized on libraries, while focusing on mentorship, mutual support among students, and social networks across barriers of age, sex, language, culture, and nationalities. That was, ironically and quite appropriately, what the Land Grant Colleges of Lincoln were supposed to do in the first place. It would be, even more ironically, the best possible answer to the Congressional logjam on college loan rates (do more for free, and borrow less). And it would, finally, put the power of curriculum in the hands of the generation that's going to be accountable, sooner or later, for whatever it is they learn in whatever fashion we can find to deliver it.