Many of them are certainly badly done but that does not condemn the genre. I often lectured to a class of 1,000 students or more in a big auditorium and got enough feedback to think I made some impression. But I always spoke extempore and took questions to some degree so what I saw in front of me were generally very attentive students.

But speaking extemore is, I acknowledge, a big ask. One needs both considerable self-confidence and a thorough knowledge of one’s subject. I admit to being rather severe about it but I have always said that if you need to prepare your lectures you don’t know your subject well enough.

And being able to approach the lecturer after the lecture and ask for clarifications etc. is not something you can do to a face on a screen. I regularly had small groups of students taking up points with me after a lecture — something I enjoyed.

So I go half-way with the writer below. I think live lectures should remain but they should always be recorded and made available in that form for occasions when that might be helpful to some or all students — JR

Imagine sitting in a crowd of 1000 or so students in a university lecture hall and not understanding something. Do you ask a question or do you just zone out and log onto Facebook instead?

Outside our university lecture halls, the rest of the world is in the grips of a digital communications revolution offering an ever increasing number of options for truly engaging, personalised learning.

Today’s standard lecture, as a knowledge delivery model, is a legacy of our pre-digital past. We already have decades of research behind us which says that, as far as learning goes, having one person stand up in front of lots of people and talking non-stop is about as ineffective as it gets.

The idea that much learning, and indeed wisdom, was to be found on campus at the foot of the masters — learning by osmosis alongside a visionary physicist in a university science lab, for example — might have once rung true. But bring in the big, modern lecture halls of mass higher education and those same masters do not necessarily inspire as teachers, nor do they have the opportunity to connect with students on an effective, personal level.

So why persist with a teaching model dating back to the 1200s when alternative, superior digital communications tools are evolving so rapidly around us? Perhaps old habits die hard. Perhaps we haven’t yet worked out an alternative strategy to teach the ever increasing cohorts of tertiary students in Australia and worldwide.

But, if universities don’t move fast, the rest of the world of teaching and learning – now increasingly online, global and outside the ivory tower of academia — will have moved on without them.

Accessible online education options are expanding exponentially. Some are offered by entirely new players in the market like the US-based Khan academy, a Bill Gates-backed not for profit online educator which has already delivered some 158 million lessons for free. Others are offered by internationally renowned universities like MIT and Harvard, which recently announced a US $60 million online joint venture to offer their courses worldwide, free.

At the same time, the global demand for mass higher education is outstripping the capacity and infrastructure of traditional on-campus universities. In Australia, the federal government is actively pushing university enrolments towards new higher education attainment targets; potentially cramming more students into already crowded lecture halls.

But, why run mass lectures on campus at all? Student attendance and attentiveness is falling, and many lectures can now be viewed on YouTube anyway.

Universities could take the first step towards the future by shifting the classroom, with its human scale interaction, to the top of the on-campus education agenda. Much of the common “content” for particular disciplines can be effectively delivered online.

We could turn back to Confucius for a way forward. He said: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” Hearing and seeing is what we call “lean back learning”. But doing- via problem solving – is “lean forward learning”.

We should be using precious face time in classrooms for these lean forward types of teaching — to ask hard questions, to take part in interactive tasks, for guided problem solving, for working in groups and for engaging with directly and productively with teachers or tutors. Not for “talking at” students en masse. This could lead to a better “productivity of learning” – a measure of how fast and well a concept is learnt.

If students can get through the basic maths, for example, at home using online adaptive eLearning modules which guide them through the steps and give them personalised feedback as they go, wouldn’t that mean that universities could concentrate on higher level learning and inquiry and research in class? That is, the future of universities may lie in shifting away from dispensing knowledge on campus towards interpreting and applying knowledge, with consequent gains for innovation. [Knowledge is never “dispensed”. It is always interpreted]

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Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.). For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. To keep up with attacks on free speech see TONGUE-TIED. Also, don’t forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me here

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