The Lecture in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (2013)

Questioning Lectures

The old-school lecture is taking a thumping. In a world where more and more of our experiences are web-based and disconnected from location and time, the idea that we would find it logical to get students together in a single location at a specific time to hear a presentation seems increasingly odd.

“Imagine”, Donald Clark writes, “if a movie were shown only once. Or your local newspaper was read out just once a day in the local square. Or novelists read their books out once to an invited audience. That’s face-to-face lectures for you: it’s that stupid.”

Others focus more on the instructional value of lectures — regardless of the role of technology. Graham Gibbs:

“More than 700 studies have confirmed that lectures are less effective than a wide range of methods for achieving almost every educational goal you can think of. Even for the straightforward objective of transmitting factual information, they are no better than a host of alternatives, including private reading. Moreover, lectures inspire students less than other methods, and lead to less study afterwards.”

So why do we hang on to lectures?

Explanations of the persistence of lectures point to the usual suspects: the challenge of introducing new instructional strategies, the dictates of the physical space, class size, the time required to use more interactive instructional experiences, and more.

Privileging the Original and One-of-a-Kind

One factor that we may not have considered is how lectures fit into a broader cultural framework that privileges original and live events (or one-of-a-kind objects) over reproductions and technologically-mediated experiences.

A line was drawn during Modernity between original cultural practices and artefacts - such as paintings - and reproductions of the original, made possible by technology. The original is highly valued; the reproduction, far less so. This basic distinction unfolds in different fields of expression in roughly the same fashion:

  • One-of-a-kind artisan crafts v mass manufactured “crafts”

  • Live music performances v recordings

  • Paintings v photographic reproductions

  • Haute couture fashion v “pret a porter” (or ready-to-wear)

The increased capacity to make reproductions, according to theorists like Walter Benjamin of The Frankfurt School, served to reconfigure the meaning and value of both the original and the copy. The presence of ubiquitous copies can weaken the value of the original, but it still maintains a privileged status. The original has an “aura”. (See “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction“, 1936.)

In this context, we can understand the shift from lectures to online higher education as not merely a migration from one instructional model to another, but a shift from a one-time, “original”, live event or object to a recorded and reproducible event or object. As with art and other cultural artefacts and practices, the original is privileged.

The distinctions often reveal themselves through language; the choice of words and the metaphors we use. Defenders of the lecture, like Mark Edmundson tell us that “Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.” The lecture, Abigail Walthausen explains, “is an art, and like other arts such as painting, musicianship and writing, it takes real dedication and many hours of practice to excel at.”

Clay Shirky rightly notes that defenders of lectures believe that face-to-face education is the only “real” education — everything else is a facsimile, at best. (Shirky proposed The MOOC Criticism Drinking Game: take a swig whenever someone says “real”, “true”, or “genuine” when questioning the value of MOOCs.)

Given that we tend to privilege live/original experiences, it is understandable that academics would celebrate the live educational format — and want to protect their place within it. There are few professions that involve strapping on a microphone and speaking to large groups of people — sometimes hundreds at a time — on a daily basis. Fewer occupations, still, call for the professional to offer their own unique perspective on a topic. (The sacred but often questioned link between teaching and research is key here.) I wouldn’t be the first to identify the link between the identity of the academic and the archetype of the lone artist — an individual working doggedly on a personal project before presenting it to the world.

Context + Competition (2014)

We attribute value and meaning to people, objects and other things on the basis of the circumstances in which we experience them. Art is the classic example. If we take a work of art out from behind the red ropes, away from the quiet guards, and out of the art gallery, the meaning and value of the art typically change a great deal. In fact, it may no longer be interpreted as art at all by some people - particularly in the case of some modern art. (Figure A)


Context is crucial in commercial markets, too. Vendors go to great lengths to control the context in which their products and services are positioned. Television advertisers, for example, avoid placing ads in the middle of programs that address unsettling topics; that evoke emotions and sensibilities that are not supportive of the product being promoted. “The Day After” was a fictional “made for TV movie” about the aftermath of a nuclear attack on US soil.

The film’s producers found it so difficult to attract advertisers that they choose to run all ads prior to the point in the film when the nuclear attack occurs.  Apparently, convincing people that having fresher breath will make them one of the “beautiful people” is more difficult after witnessing death and destruction.

What, if anything, does this have to do with higher education? Until now, not much. Historically, higher education has been able to control the context in which student’s experience the institution and what it has to offer. Compared to other types of organizations, colleges and universities are like islands, “all-in-one” organizations, in which the student - if they chose - could spend their entire educational career without ever leaving the campus.

Educational Content in New Contexts

But the walls around higher education are becoming less substantial, primarily because of student behaviour. Whether creating work groups on Facebook, or adding their opinion to RateMyProfessor, students are taking elements of their experience outside of their schools to the broader public, piece by piece.

Institutions are cautiously joining in the dismantling of the walls by, for example, creating institutional Facebook pages. But the most interesting effort to reach beyond the walls is the placement of the institution's instructional materials (course notes, lectures) on public platforms, like  Connexions and Merlot and Academic Earth.

The fact that these materials are publicly available is significant, of course. Traditionally, these instructional materials were carefully hidden behind secure university course management systems, available only to students registered in the course.

But it's also significant that the materials are now subject to evaluation and comparison with materials from other institutions. This exposes the institution to an entirely new type of evaluation with its own criteria.

The Net is doing to higher ed what it did for so many other sectors - exposing competitors to brutal side-by-side comparisons; creating a far more informed buyer. As these shared platforms for educational content become more user-friendly visitors may soon be able to compare lectures like they compare fridges.

What the users experience is not always pretty. Philip Greenspun did a minute by minute evaluation of a well known finance professor’s lecture performance on Academic Earth, suggesting that the professor’s lecture was wasteful, self-indulgent and incoherent (Figure C). On the other hand, some of the instructional materials on the sites are celebrated for their quality. (Platforms like Academic Earth highlight the higher rated materials.)

This move to greater transparency is a positive development. But I’m not sure that the majority of academic managers are yet fully conscious of the implications. Indeed, the decision to put educational content online is, at most institutions, left to the individual academic. As these platforms become more popular and the ability to compare educational content/institutions becomes that much easier, we may see leaders paying closer attention to what is published publicly.

Could We Please, Finally, Move Forward? (2017)

I keep hearing that the pace of change is picking up in digital higher education in 2017; that higher education is in a period of "transformation".  And yet . . . as if to splash cold water on such happy thoughts, this morning I read a short article in the Times Higher Education Supplement (source) which suggests otherwise.



The National Tertiary Education Union in Australia just released a report that, according to one of the authors, "explodes the myth" that it takes less time to prepare and teach an online course than on-campus courses. (Report: study)


As the report suggests, it is important that we have a sense of how much time is devoted to different roles and responsibilities within the institution. But it has been long known that online courses take longer to prepare than classroom versions. Did the authors not do any secondary research? Frankly, they could have simply walked down the hall and asked one of the staff that specialize in online education. We've known this for at least fifteen years. How could a major survey like this be funded, involve the participation of multiple academics from different institutions, and yet fail to know that there is little debate about the question they seek to answer.

More troubling, though, is that there are still people working in this field that doesn't recognize that a well designed and resource-rich online course should take much longer to build if we take our jobs as educators seriously. Much longer. Moreover, most courses shouldn't be built by a single faculty member - which this report and many others assume. Individual faculty don't have the range of skills required, the time to devote to the process, ample professional incentives, or funds. As a result, most courses that rely on in-house content development rely on repurposed classroom materials. This approach ensures that the course falls short of realizing the full potential of the online environment.

The Australian study isn't an isolated incident. Have you attended a conference focused on digital higher education in the last year? I am consistently stunned by presentations by well-intentioned professionals who, one after another, ask and answer questions that were raised fifteen years ago by other professionals - sometimes at the very same conference. By and large, I've stopped attending conferences. Sure, they can be useful for setting up multiple meetings, but I'm not hearing much of anything new. Are you?


Business Model Innovation in Online Higher Education (2013)

Yes, the concept of "business model innovation" sounds like something a management consultant would conjure up. But I encourage you to suspend your initial reaction. The growing interest in business model innovation during the last five years is in response to challenging conditions facing a number of sectors, including higher education.  And the concept provides a useful framework for imagining new approaches.


A business model is simply the way in which an organization fulfills its mission; how it creates, markets and funds the goods and services it creates for stakeholders – whether they are waste management companies, families buying groceries or students pursuing degrees.

Note: Using the business model concept does not imply that higher education is a business, or that it should be more businesslike. Every organization has a business model, whether it’s IBM or Greenpeace. It’s simply a way to analyze how different types of organizations operate.

Quality > Innovation > Business Model Innovation

Business model innovation is a product of its time. In the 1980s, the watchword was "quality." (Ford’s slogan was "Quality is Job 1").  Success was thought to be the result of creating better quality goods and services.

More recently, "innovation" has ruled supreme. Quality alone is insufficient. Quality is merely the "price of entry," as Tom Peters said. Now, organizations need to become more creative; to "fail fast, fail often."

Business model innovation takes the change imperative to a whole new level. It calls for organizations to not merely innovate with new and better offerings, but to reinvent themselves in order to survive.

The concept took hold as we witnessed major 20th-century companies and institutions falter: Kodak, General Motors and Sears, for example, as well as entire industries, such as music and journalism.

By employing new business models, new organizations emerged and upended established industries. Craigslist cut deeply into newspaper advertising. Blogs pulled audiences away from magazines. Warehouse-style retailers like Home Depot made life difficult for many small retailers. Cirque du Soleil reinvented the circus by creating an entirely new category of entertainment and became a billion-dollar company in the process.

Components of Higher Education's Business Model

Most non-profit higher education institutions in North America operate under essentially the same business model. The differences lie in what they choose to emphasize. For example, some institutions place greater importance on faculty research than others. But most institutions only hire faculty, who have demonstrated the capacity to do university-level research and teach. Faculty are typically charged with doing both.

Clay Christensen and others have argued most higher education institutions, regardless of ranking, share a common notion of what constitutes a great institution. Many seek to emulate the more prestigious institutions, thereby creating greater homogeneity in the sector.

The elements of a business model can be divided in different ways. I'm using the approach developed by Alex Osterwalder, author and advisor on business model innovation.

Business Model Generation by Alex Osterwalder

Market segments

Who does the institution serve? Many universities focus on 18-24-year-olds, who have recently graduated from high school. Some universities widen their focus with programs serving adults, who are returning to complete undergraduate degrees.

Value proposition

What are the reasons students and others turn to your institutions? E.g., Widely-recognized credentials that have value in the labour market; ranking as a top research university.

Key activities

Which activities are fundamental to your organization? E.g., Research, teaching, evaluating student performance, developing programs in subjects of value to society, and granting degrees.

Revenue streams

What are the sources of funds that make your institution sustainable and how do you capture these funds? E.g., Government capital grants, tuition, philanthropists and research grants.


How does your institution interact with stakeholders? E.g., Through on-campus teaching, conference participation, scholarly journals and media.

Key partners

What are the other organizations your institution partners with on a regular basis? E.g., Research granting organizations, private companies seeking research partners, and regulatory/accreditation bodies.

Cost structure

What are your main costs, and how do you go about paying for these costs? E.g., Faculty and instructor salaries, administrative staff, building maintenance and marketing.

Key resources

What are the key resources that every college and university must possess? E.g., Faculty, buildings and accreditation.

Stakeholder relationships

How does your organization build and maintain relationships with its key stakeholders? E.g. alumni organizations, university email systems, university social networking (Facebook), learning management systems, and media relations officers.

In the second post, I'll touch on the analytical value of business models and examples of business model innovation in higher education.


Business Model Innovation: A Blueprint for Higher Education

Exploring Higher Education Business Models (If Such a Thing Exists)

University Business Models and Online Practices:  A Third Way

The Higher Education Business Model: Innovation and Financial Sustainability