Does the World Really Need More Lectures?

I did some quick mental math and came to the conclusion that I must have sat through many thousands of lectures delivered by hundreds of lecturers in my lifetime. And through all of this – primary school, middle school, high school, undergraduate studies, graduate studies, and innumerable professional development courses and conferences – I could probably point to a small handful of lecturers who were totally enthralling and provided a meaningful and memorable learning experience. There are two reasons for this. One, genuinely good public speaking and presentation skills are scarce. Two, straight information presentation is not a good way to learn anything at other than a surface level.

What brought on all this reflection was a notice I received that Lectopia, a lecture capture system developed by the University of Western Australia, had been acquired by a company called Anystream. The newly combined entity is now known as Echo360. Their mission is to supply universities and colleges with this technology that allows for the capture of live lectures to be played on a browser later, allowing the user to see and hear the lecturer via a small window, and to see the lecturer’s notes / presentation in a larger window. The idea, as far as I can tell, is that learners could replay the lecture later for review, or the captured lecture could be “dumped” into a course management system for inclusion in online versions of courses.

After viewing some of the sample lectures on the Echo360 site, and remembering other similar examples using other technologies, I can definitely say that I am not impressed. Most lectures are bad in person, but they are even worse when replayed later online. You cannot really see the lecturer (window very small), the sound quality is crappy, many of the graphics used are difficult to read, and you cannot interact with anyone or anything. Everything about it reinforces the impression that you are not there and not part of it.

If the idea is to merely present information for easy anytime access online, why not produce this professionally in a controlled environment (not the chaotic echo chambers of huge lecture halls), where you can ensure that sound, pictures, graphics, animations, etc. are all in synch, of good quality, and working as intended? Not to mention editing out all the “ahs,” and “ums,” and “where was I now” comments. You can then use the in-class time for meaningful interactions beyond information transfer (e.g. debates, case studies, role plays, etc.) and deeper levels of learning.

Recording lectures to replay online reminds me of the very early days of silent films. Directors filmed stage plays. Then someone realized that having this new technology (the camera) meant that they were not bound to the stage, that they could take the camera and go on location and film virtually anything anywhere. We still haven’t had that “aha” moment yet with respect to the ways that technology can free us from the lecture hall and the mind-numbingly boring way that we continue to educate and train. We are still walking backward into the future.

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