Myths of Teaching & Learning 3

Myths of Teaching & Learning 3

Sitting Through Lectures

A recent article on The New York Times of Nov. 5, 2010 (Live vs. Distance Learning: Measuring the Differences by Trip Gabriel), prompts me to write a new, urgent post on Myths of Teaching and Learning sooner than planned and liberate the edu-Bolshevik lurking in me.

First, one brief reflection, based on George Siemens’ thoughts, still fresh of publishing: Who cares? Wrote Siemens (Questions Not Worth Asking):

Is online learning more or less effective than learning in a classroom? Who cares. That question is irrelevant. Society answered the need to use technology through its broad adoption of the web/internet/online medium.

Now, it’s really impressive how many misconceptions about distance ed can be hidden in such short article. For instance, the article’s author reports that:

Mark Rush of the University of Florida and colleagues tried to do just that by contrasting grades of students who sat through a semester of his live microeconomics lectures with those who watched online. {my boldface}

Right: In the face-to-face world, students “sit” through a semester worth of lectures, while “distance” students “watch” (those lectures) online. What’s the difference? Both groups get bored throughout the semester and “rarely engaged the professor or one another”.

Still, the article reports that certain groups “perform” worse than expected in the online setting. But, how exactly is such performance to be measured? Standardized testing? Really? The problem lies on our dumb copying the same dull, tried and tested (but mediocre) methods of traditional-style education to online learning and studying. The lecture? Haven’t we tried that with TV and videoconferencing? Remember the results? Want to replace those with iTunes U?
So, instead of criticizing the lecture as the main vehicle for teaching, we read of such dumb research efforts.

The NYT article continues with:

Hispanic students watching online earned a full grade lower, on average, than Hispanics who attended class, and all male students who watched online were about a half-grade lower.

Again, online students just “watch” online classes, while f2f students “attend” them. Guess what. And Hispanics got a half-grade less? Wait a minute. Does this mean they got a 95 instead than 100? Or 89 instead than 95? And they got those grades simply because they watched the lectures online instead of “sitting through” them?

It seems to me the two modalities are essentially the same, the one and only mediocre modality. Aren’t there so many more variables in this equation to make it essentially impossible to see a correlation there?

David N. Figlio, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University and a co-author of the study, had been prepared to find that “watching online didn’t make a lick of difference,” he said. “What we’re saying is, ‘Hang on for a second, maybe it does.’ ” Without the nudge of having to attend classes, the authors suggested, it can be easy to let recorded lectures pile up unwatched. Indeed, it is common at Florida to see students in libraries cramming viewings of a dozen lectures back to back before exams.

This all means that studying equals:

  1. Watching lectures; and/or
  2. Sitting through lectures.

Unfortunately, even Bill Gates meant exactly that, when he said that since we can find the best lectures on the Web, the University is doomed.

What Bill doesn’t get -and a few others with him- is that we need to kill the lecture if we want our education system to survive and thrive in this century. The lecture is but one component -an overvalued, misconceptualized, overpriced and hyper-theatrical component of the educational experience. We need to transcend it: jut like we do at the elementary school level, and at the doctoral, with lab-based, constructive, and social learning experiences. All those lectures in the middle are the bottleneck.

About Antonio Vantaggiato

Professor, web2.0 enthusiast, and didactic chef.
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