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Opinion: Lectures as a way of delivering content are over

15 December 2011

BASc programme director Carl Gombrich explains why he believes the traditional lecture model should be abandoned.

Professor Bert De Reyck talks to UCL students

Image: Professor Bert De Reyck converses with students

Inspired by Khan and having read more at Steve Wheeler’s blog and many other sites, I have been thinking about how we can use technology at universities to give the students what they want: meaningful contact time with their lecturers, professors and the leading academics. This is about putting the people back at the centre of the learning. It is using technology to do stuff technology can do, and allowing people to do the things most of us want people to do.

How can we do this? Well, how about this for a first model?

We say that lectures as a way of delivering content are over. We don’t ban them – that is too strong – but we take it as default that this way of talking at students has now passed. A great deal of the content you need to get in years one and two of undergraduate studies at universities is on the web. Why sit through lectures on these things? Even if they’re being delivered by really good academics, this is not the best use of anyone’s time. There will always be a place for lectures, particularly one-off lectures, but lectures as a default way of delivering content looks passé and should be discouraged.

Instead we say all lecturers should upload their lectures by Lecturecast to some VLE (virtual learning environment) or other space where all their students can see them. Really, this is no more than 30-40 hours’ work for lecturers at the start of the year, but if there is resistance to this, then one year’s worth of lectures can be used for the next year or two.

We then make it a requirement for students to watch those lectures in their own time. In essence, this becomes the major part of their ‘coursework’. How do we know they have done this?

We require that each student submits three questions to the lecturer based on the lecture they have viewed. They must do this before the usual scheduled one-hour slot. The questions should target aspects, problems etc that the student wants to understand better or explore. The submitting of these questions can be a prerequisite for passing the course.

As a next step, the lecturer collates all the questions and chooses a top 10-30 questions to address. It would be a nice extra touch for the lecturer to choose, say, 30 and get the class to vote on the top 10-15 they would like to discuss. These things can now happen in the blink of an eye in a poll on a VLE like Moodle.

Then, the hour slot that was previously used for the lecture is used for a full class discussion, with the lecturer leading and discussing all the issues the class wanted to discuss. Based on this being a regular way of doing things, I think this model could work with classes of up to at least 180 students, maybe even more.

Essentially, instead of two or three lectures every week, students would get two or three hours of big forum discussions, problem-solving etc, based on the questions that interest them, with leading academics every week.

In fact, I can see this approach liberating so much time that there could be time for smaller, more dynamic assessments in, say, 20-30 minutes of the ex-lecture slots every one or two weeks. Here, students could write blog pieces, bullet points, short critical works etc – all to demonstrate that they have understood the content. Such assessment would also get rid of the worry that there may be quite a bit of collaboration and short-cutting in the submission of questions, particularly if it is understood that submitting these questions is a requirement for passing the course.

The extra work for staff is minimal – maybe 10-15% max – particularly if some lecture time is used for assessment. And the satisfaction of students should more than make up for that. It may even lead to less work for the academics if the assessment is brought more substantially into the time previously used to deliver content.

I have run this idea past a couple of colleagues and there is tentative approval. One worry is that lecturers “like to tweak as they go along, be spontaneous, improvise”. I understand this and sympathise. But I don’t think this approach is really threatened by what I am proposing. For one, even when the lectures are recorded the content is not fixed for all time. On the contrary: the discussion, Q&A and debate sessions that follow can be used for the lecturer to say: “Well, you know, I was thinking this…” or “Now when I reflect on it I would like to develop this idea along these lines…” and so on. The greatly improved contact hours with the students gives the lecturers more flexibility, not less.

I am fond of this model because it seems (a) sustainable and (b) scalable. I guess it is particularly sustainable at a great place like UCL. The single biggest asset we have is our people – and this model gives students the most access to those people. That is what I would like for my children if I was thinking of them getting in debt to the tune of £50,000 over three to four years. If UCL is able to give students access to its lecturers, then undergraduate education looks attractive to students for the foreseeable future. It is scalable (up to a point) because I think the model works for lecture sizes of 60-180/200. Beyond that, I can’t say. But perhaps we should not be giving lectures to more than 200 people in any case.

As an addendum to this piece, I think that other things we are doing on Arts and Sciences BASc involving more fieldwork and, in particular, more interdisciplinary courses are also exactly right in terms of responding to initiatives like Khan’s and others’. Practical courses are not replicable on the net and interdisciplinarity at UCL, which is right at the cutting edge of exciting knowledge and research, is too new to be formalised by online lectures or games – however excellent these may be.

Providing students with the technical tools to capitalise on these innovative practical and interdisciplinary courses is still a challenge. But flipping the lectures goes a good way to addressing these issues in terms of giving students more hands-on time with their professors to tackle problems in class.

Carl Gombrich

Carl Gombrich is the director of the Arts and Sciences (BASc) programme.

Post originally published on Carl Gombrich’s blog.

Got an opinion? Get in touch by emailing c.gombrich@ucl.ac.uk.

Page last modified on 15 dec 11 11:37


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