There’s something bothering me about the interesting project pulled together by Jeff Young at The Chronicle, intended to demonstrate that today’s college students are bored with yesterday’s lecturing tactics. In January, Jeff asked students to video their thoughts on the traditional lecture experience. Here’s his compilation of some of their responses:
I don’t particularly disagree with anything the students say, and I really like that they took the trouble to video their thoughts and send them in. Honestly, I think it’s good for us to be reminded that we digress, we read from PowerPoint, we repeat ourselves, and we don’t use technology well.
But none of this is a revelation. In fact, all these experiences and more are waiting in the workplace, and we know this because we’ve all sat in meetings wondering idly about chewing off our own arms in frustration while someone handles a communications task we believe we would execute with much more competence and flair. We’ve all felt the waves of panic as our remaining time on earth slips away while someone searches for the projector cord, or drifts like an untethered balloon far, far beyond the printed agenda, until you can barely make them out in the distance.
And we’ve all surreptitiously—or openly—multitasked our way through work meetings, conferences, seminars, and even public lectures, half-listening while actually checking emails, grading papers, tweeting, clock-watching. Yesterday I caught myself looking at haunting images of abandoned swimming pools and losing track completely of a discussion about business planning. As you do.
In fact, academics are experts in pokerfaced management of boredom, and this is why we’re genuinely sorry when in turn we’re the cause of it for others. We don’t set out to bore, or to drone, and we’re not indifferent to the passing of time. (Mostly we’re looking distracted because we’re trying to find somewhere to pin the lecture mic and its surprisingly heavy battery pack without triggering a wardrobe malfunction.) It’s true that sometimes we’re genuinely underprepared, still thinking aloud, and asking ourselves questions as we go—both because we care about the ideas we’re introducing, and because in the rest of our working lives we’re flat out, just as our students are.
But the real issue is that we’re not television performers: there’s no autocue, no rehearsal, no script, and no production crew making sure that we have nothing to do except face front and read aloud. None of us had a hand in choosing either the timeslot, the traditional running time, the technology mix, or the shape of the room for the standard university lecture, and while most of us do what we can to hack this infrastructure, the big invisible to our students (and, apparently, to The Chronicle) is the way in which traditional lectures plug in to the conventional measures of academic labour.
That is, we keep on lecturing because—as a colleague reminded me this week—when we don’t, we’re often assumed by either administrators or students to be reneging on the deal that trades student college costs for academic face-time. The delivery of most courses assumes that the lecture represents an ideal mode, mixing prestige delivery with financial efficiency, and to that end some universities are even increasing the time spent in lectures rather than seminars or tutorials, because the one-to-many model is an obvious way to handle increased enrolments without a matching increase in delivery cost.
These efficiencies are sensible and they’re part of a raft of strategies that universities are using to ensure their sustainability into the future. At one level, this means that they’re a form of good practice that has student wellbeing at their heart. But in the short term, they’re also positioning academics in direct conflict with what we all know about the ways in which many people prefer to learn. As Jeff Young puts it, a bit obviously:
PowerPoint is boring. Student attention spans are short. Today many facts pop up with a simple Google search. And plenty of free lectures by the world’s greatest professors can be found on YouTube.
Interestingly, Mike Wesch brought this up already, back in 2007. That’s five years ago, which is a long time in dog years. His deservedly famous YouTube video, ‘A Vision of Students Today’ has been seen four and a half million times (and probably more, in copies), and here it is again for those of who you don’t know it:
Revisiting this video, which continues to strike me as gentle, thoughtful, and well-argued, I feel that perhaps The Chronicle should be doing more than simply stirring up antagonism to the traditional lecture format. We know this stuff. What we know less about is how to move from where we are.
What would help is an invitation for students to contribute ideas on the basis of what they like, not simply what irritates them. What kinds of participatory models that are manageable for large classes, using available infrastructure, would work best? How can we provide appropriate levels of professional development, peer support and time to academics so that they can learn new technologies without doing yet more work in the evenings and on weekends? How best can we build a partnership that encourages creativity and risk in teaching, when we are already over-surveying everything teachers do, and in many cases using the results punitively?
And how can we encourage administrators to join the conversation about the future of the college lecture so that the evangelistic fervour of flipped-class advocates is continually tempered with the practicalities of cost, load and labour management in a highly casualised profession?
Until we do, I think we may be stuck in the lecture hall, so perhaps we need to get better at explaining what we’re doing there.