Before I quit my faculty position to move into education management and consulting, I regularly lectured to classes with 200-250 students. I was nervous at first, and my delivery was stiff and overly formal. With practice, though, I got good at it. My lectures became almost theatrical, and I enjoyed great reviews from students and colleagues. I learned to love it. (Although I never stopped being nervous beforehand.)

I don’t remember when exactly it dawned on me, but one day I realized that my lectures could and, ultimately should be, replaced by educational media. Not just any media, but well-scripted, thoroughly researched, high-production value media; content that would allow the student to play with the material, test their understanding, get immediate and detailed feedback, interact with other learners, and more. The lecture and all of the associated elements of that style of  teaching is a sad substitute for what is now possible. Sure, we need face-to-face interaction. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But let’s stop using the lecture hall for broadcasting information that can be much better (and more cheaply) done by other means. (For some thoughts as to why high quality educational media is not readily available, see my earlier post.)

So, I was interested to read this post by Philip Greenspun of MIT. (Thank you to Ryan Busch for bringing it to my attention.) His post is essentially a rant on the lunacy of the lecture model. As Greenspun notes, lectures made sense when it was the best (only?) way to broadcast information efficiently. This obviously isn’t the case today. And the argument that lecturing is valuable because it harnesses the age-old value of “storytelling” only holds up if (a) narrative is actually used in the lecture (which is rare), and (b) the academic can tell stories (again, rare).

To prove his point, Greenspun dissects a couple of lectures by a well-known academic from Yale University. His analysis isn’t charitable, but it is accurate. And more importantly, the problems he identified are representative of the problem with the lecture format, and not limited to a handful of academics. (The Yale lecturer identified in the article is no different than thousands of other research-intensive academics. For an excerpt of his dissection of the Yale lecture, see below.)

Greenspun’s larger concern is the health and prosperity of the society. Like others, he believes that we need to rethink education in order to continue to build prosperous, enlightened societies. And it’s this fear of what the future holds for us that may be the driving force behind real change in higher education. People have been calling for change in higher ed for decades (See New Players, Different Game). But I sense a greater level of urgency. Things are getting really bad out there: families, communities, companies, (and even universities) are hurting in ways that they haven’t before. We may finally have, as John Kotter describes it, the required “sense of urgency” to bring about substantial change.

I encourage you to read Philip Greenspun’s notes. They are rough, to be sure. But they draw attention to some very basic facts about the limitations of the higher education model.

Philip Greenspun: “Universities and Economic Growth”

Excerpt (Read the full post here)

Modern University

Teaching technologies developed since 1088:

  • movable type
  • cheap paper made from trees
  • telephone
  • photocopier
  • email
  • Web

How has this changed the way classes are conducted? We still have lectures and homework, just as in 1088. What other industry could survive without adopting at least some of the technologies of the last 1000 years into its core processes?

Improved technology has rendered the traditional university instructional method far less effective. The student has a warm cozy apartment and will find sleeping late an attractive alternative to attending a lecture (or watching Good Morning America). The student sitting in lecture has some sort of device capable of browsing the Web, sending and receiving text messages, supporting games, displaying photos or video to an adjacent student.

Focusing on homework has become much tougher. A modern dorm room has a television, Internet, youtube, instant messaging, email, phone, and video games. The students who get the most out of their four years in college are not those who are most able, but rather those with the best study habits.

No company would rely on this system for getting work done, despite the potential savings in having each employee work from home. Companies spend a fortune in commercial office space rent to create an environment with limited distractions and keep workers there for most of each day.

In the face of massive technological advances, the most significant change that universities have made is removing their only quality control mechanism. Through tenure, the university now guarantees professors pay regardless of effectiveness.

Yale University

One argument for traditional lecture-based teaching is that storytelling is a primal human activity. If the cavemen in the movie 2001 were learning from great storytellers, surely it must be the best way to teach today.

A problem with this approach is that it depends on finding millions of great storytellers.

Consider lectures by Robert Shiller, e.g., Econ 252, Financial Markets: Lecture 1 (alternate location):

  • 0-4:30: name of course, name of professor, names of TAs, pictures of TAs [all stuff that could easily have been on a handout or Web site]
  • 4:30-5:15: bragging about how many important people on Wall Street took his course, bragging about how great the course is even for people who aren’t going on to Wall Street
  • 5:15-6:20: talking about how every human endeavor involves finance, e.g., if you’re a poet it will help you get published to know how finance works [my haiku: AIG bankrupt; your taxes gone to Greenwich; no one hears your screams]
  • 6:20-7: talking about an unrelated course, Econ 251, and who taught it in previous years [big excitement at a university: some guy other than the usual lecturer taught it because Kahuna #1 was on leave]
  • 7-10: history of why two intro finance courses exist, glorious biography of teacher of the other course, [after several minutes, we learn that the other course has a bit more math]
  • 10-11:30: show of hands for who is interested in organic chemistry, discussion of how Robert Shiller is reading about this because he has such broad intellectual interests [implicit comparison to finance wizards, though Shiller is not able to cite an example of how organic chemists managed to bankrupt their shareholders and wreck the world economy]
  • 11:30-15:00: writes authors of textbook on blackboard, says it is “very detailed”, discusses reactions of previous classes of students to this book, talks about his vacation in the Bahamas with some other important guy, reading textbook by the pool unlike the other stupid tourists who were reading novels. Discussion of what number the current edition is. “I met a really prominent person on Wall Street” who told him that his son had dropped out of the course because the textbook was too hard. Apparently Yale students are too stupid/lazy to read this book intended for undergrads at schools with more motivated students.
  • 15-16: discussion of how library is obsolete in the Internet age, how Franco Modigliani is 2nd author of primary textbook, a Nobel Prize winner, and “my teacher at MIT”
  • 16-18: discussion of assigning Jeremy Siegel’s Stocks for the Long Run book and how it has sold more than 1/2 million copies [Why do we need to pay $50,000/year to Yale to find books that are stacked out front in Barnes and Noble]
  • 18: discussion of assigning his own book, Irrational Exuberance, and how he managed to time both the stock market crash of 2000 and the housing market peak in 2005
  • 19-20:15: all of these are on sale at Labyrinth Books, an independent bookstore, as well as the campus bookstore. Talks about how he likes to support independent bookstores. Talks about New Haven bookstore that went out of business some time earlier. Helpfully provides street address for defunct bookstore.
  • 20:15-21: discussion of lecture and teaching section schedule; there are six problem sets and they are due on Monday
  • 21-22:30: this is one of the biggest classes at Yale [because we are such great teachers]; how grades are determined, e.g., what percentage are problem sets and exams, but then we use judgment as well [so perhaps you can ignore the percentages just given]
  • 22:30: writes first topic on the board, “Behavioral Finance”, and begins what might be considered actual teaching.

Does it get better after the first lecture? Let’s look at Lecture 2, in which the first 10 minutes are spent on irrelevant story from Hindu scripture. From 20:30-22:20, the Binomial Distribution formula is written on the blackboard with no explanation:

f(x) = P^x (1-P)^(n-x) n!/(n-x)!all two minutes are taken up with writing (incorrectly; there is an unbalanced parenthesis) and asking if people can read his handwriting. [Compare to two minutes reading]

A bit later Shiller presents the moderately scary formula for a Gaussian Distribution with no explanation and says “I assume you’re familiar with this”. Students at Yale must be very intelligent indeed if they can understand the Binomial Formula and Gaussian Distribution simply by looking at an expression. But if they are so smart and math-nerdy, how do we explain this sequence:

  • 50:30: begins ad nauseum explanation of present value calculation
  • 53:40: we figure out the value of $1 a year from now
  • 63: wraps up after having spent 13 minutes explaining something much simpler than the Binomial Distribution, which had been dispensed with in 2 minutes

This is one of the most popular courses at one of America’s greatest universities.

Bureau of Labor Statistics says that 1.7 million Americans work as college teachers (source). If Yale can’t find teachers who can use classroom time effectively, what hope is there for universities with less money and prestige?”

2 thoughts on “Why Are We Still Doing Lectures?

  1. I am saddened by the fact that this professor did not take the time to make the Binomial and Gaussian Distributions come alive for his students by explaining how they are used in the world of finance.
    Math is so often glossed over and misused in the classroom when so many need to see its real application and understand it better. And lastly there is so much that could be done with technology in the way of interactive annimation, real world data, and video that could enhance and drive home the point to the current generation of students.


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