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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

The Death of the Lecture?

Friday, March 15, 2013

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research has suggested that the demise of traditional lectures is just around the corner. Lectures are allegedly threatened by the rise of the MOOC, or massively online open courses. If a student can access through their browser a stellar lecturer from Harvard at a time that suits them, why would they bother stumbling out of bed to doze in a lecture hall whilst some anonymous teacher drones on about second-generation Romantic poetry?

Not surprisingly, academics (such as Mary Beard) have been quick to defend the role of the traditional lecture, and to claim that a face-to-face environment, the real thing, is no substitute for a grainy YouTube video. My own take on the subject - which is not surprisingly also defensive - can be illustrated by two points from my lectures or teaching in the last fortnight.

Firstly, an online lecturer may be very good at delivering an idealised lecture to an imaginary audience sitting behind the veil of a computer screen. But this is no substitute for the lecture that responds to the realities of a particular group of students in the here and now. A couple of weeks ago I was lecturing on race and theories of sexuality. I had planned to touch on the Combahee River Collective, a group of black, left-wing feminists. Earlier in the day, though, during a seminar, a couple of students had mentioned to me that they were interested in the work of Alice Walker. That afternoon, I trotted back to my Powerpoint, added a slide on Alice Walker's "womanism," and in the lecture itself spoke around this for a few minutes.

As I did this, without naming names, I did that long outmoded thing that cannot happen in the brave new world of the disembodied web: I made eye contact with the students who had spoken to me earlier. Perhaps despite my gaze my directed words went in one ear and out of the other. But perhaps not. Perhaps that moment had let them know that, "hey, I'm listening to you, I'm interested in what you are interested in, and want to help you make more of your interests." I do not think an online lecture could ever replicate this experience.

The online lecture can deliver, massively. It cannot dialogue, intimately.

My second example comes from the online model I already work with at the Open University. We use Elluminate, a kind of cross between Skype and Powerpoint. This system allows my lectures or tutorials to be  recorded, so that anyone in my groups can listen to them at any time. If the IPPR is to be believed, one would anticipate that at the start of the year my students would all join in enthusiastically for the first week, until they discover that they can download the recordings at their leisure so that suddenly, when the scheduled time to participate comes around, doing the washing up seems so much more important.

Except that this is not what happens. My participation numbers stay steady throughout the year. Why is this? Perhaps it is because I provide something that is not ephemeral but is an event. Students know, really, that if they were to listen again it would be half-heartedly, whilst downloading YouTube videos of fluffy kittens or eating dinner. To join in at the time is to commit to learning for that hour, to set aside the mobile phone and to banish the kids. In that hour they can also shape the session, rather than merely watching it - last week being a case in point, where I had planned to discuss gendered portrayals of Cleopatra and the students led us off into a discussion about ethnicity.

It is hard to explain to an outsider just what pleasure there is from being tugged along by the ebbs and flows of a live, here and now, discussion, both from the point of view of the learner and from the point of view of a teacher. And it is even harder to quantify to what extent such a mode allows for deeper learning experiences that just watching a lecture in the comfort of the living room. I work with and write about technology every day; I'm an advocate for blogging and teaching via forums and other innovative modes of dissemination; I have no doubt that the time of MOOCs has come. But I have no doubt too that the old model of interactive learning, live in the here and now, will still have its place.

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Posted by Alistair at 2:22 pm


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