Lecturing to the Choir – An Abuse of Instructional Technology

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If you were to define a continuous scale of worst to best teaching modalities, I suspect that at one end, and you can figure out which, you’d probably find large lectures.  At the other end (the “best” end, in case you missed it), you would find something like personal tutors.  The characteristics of each are pretty clear, and the pros and cons of each are also pretty clear, but let’s recap some of them anyway.

Let’s start with the “bad” end – the lecture end.  Clearly, the best part of lectures is that on aper/student basis, the costs are relatively fixed, and in many ways relatively low.  By ‘costs’ I mean the cost to the institution delivering the instruction.  In fact, the larger the class, the less the per/student cost.  Of course that cost is totally unrelated to the cost to the student.  That cost, normally called tuition and fees, often doesn’t seem to be related at all to institutional instructional delivery costs.  Sometimes, depending on the institution, it might even seem that student costs are inversely proportional to instructional delivery costs.  But that’s a topic for another day. 

So, by some ridiculous reasoning, considering only fiscal matters, it behooves an institution to deliver as much instruction as possible via large lectures.  But what about quality of instruction, or perhaps we should ask, what about student learning outcomes?  I would argue that we don’t really know.  Aside from those ridiculous student evaluations, based on our cumulative millions of person-hours of experience lecturing, most of us, both instructors and students probably agree that this instructional mode belongs at the “bad” end of our spectrum. 

So let’s look at the other end of our spectrum, the “good” end.  That’s where a single tutor teaches a single student in real time, for however long it takes for the student to learn whatever is being taught.  In general, and aside from idiosyncratic matters such as personality clashes between student and mentor, this is probably the best way to ensure that a student will learn what is being taught.  After all, in a private, personal and individualized instructional setting, a good tutor should be monitoring, understanding, and adapting the instruction in real time, depending on many, many different factors, most of which are a function of student behavior in the instructional setting. 

Now from a fiscal standpoint, it’s just common sense that one-to-one instruction for any particular instructional objective is much more costly than the one-to-many model of lectures.  So all in all, the “good” end of our spectrum is characterized by better learning at higher costs, and the other end, at best, by questionable learning at lower costs,

Now if we were in the business of delivering instruction in the least costly manner possible, without real concern for learning outcomes, certainly we’d choose practices and methodologies that characterize the ‘bad’ end of our spectrum.  On the other hand, if we were in the business of delivering the best instruction possible without much concern for fiscal matters, we’d focus on the other end of the spectrum.

So if that’s the case, why are so many institutions that are charged with educating and preparing our citizens of the future, jumping on online technologies that are characterized by the ‘bad’ end of the spectrum, and not selecting those that characterize the good end?  It’s not like they don’t have what to choose from.   Let’s consider the biggest, “bad” end, lecture bandwagon of them all – MOOCs.  Delivering online instruction to hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of students at a time is clearly the worst imaginable instructional practice.  If it weren’t, we wouldn’t have such incredible drop out and failure rates.    So what’s the alternative, at the “good” end?  It’s something called adaptive learning, or what online teaching and learning was meant to be in the first place.

When all this online stuff started in the middle of the 20th Century, all of it focused on the individual as a learner.  In fact, it was called “individualized instruction.”  Why would anyone want to use technology to emulate the worst teaching model available?  But through the decades, and because of the huge and complex effort required to do a good job designing and delivering individualized online instruction, we got lazy and began to opt for group-oriented LMS-delivered lectures.  And now with MOOCs, we’ve taken that bad model and made it even worse – using technology to lecture to thousands and thousands of students at a time.

The argument in favor of MOOC’s that seems to be prevalent is that at a relatively low instructional delivery cost,  if we enroll a class of 1,000,000, and get a 3% success rate, then 30,000 students will have been successful.  But what about the other 970,000 students?  Oh right.  Those students have now been exposed to the brilliance of the lecturer(s) responsible for the course, and without the MOOC, that would never have been the case.  On the other hand, as data are becoming available, we are learning more and more about the so-called successful students.  It turns out that most of them are nothing like the kinds of undergraduate students’ colleges and universities should be trying to reach.  In fact, most of those ‘students’  already have degrees, and have somehow managed to be academically successful before they signed on to their first MOOC lecture.

Is this a responsible approach to delivering quality instruction? Is this what higher education should be focusing on?  I don’t think so.  How are we using technology to improve the learning of undergraduate students?  We aren’t.  We are simply delivering instruction without much consideration of what it’s achieving.  And all that is because it’s easier to lecture than to tutor.

Who ever said that teaching and learning should be easy?  Difficult as it is, I think we need to return to where online learning started – to technology-based individualized, self-paced instruction.  We need to use technology to emulate the best of our teaching methodologies – the tutor, rather than the worst – the lecture.  Thankfully to help us, we still have brave frontiersmen who are fighting the fight with the development of adaptive systems.  These systems use new technologies such as cloud and big data to adapt, in real time, online instruction to suit the learner and the learning situation.  This stuff isn’t easy, but it’s got a better chance of doing the job right – especially if we care more about quality than cost.  I welcome your comments on this subject. 

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3 thoughts on “Lecturing to the Choir – An Abuse of Instructional Technology

  1. Really understand your position on this point Sorel. I also support many statement you make here. I am trying to see if we can merge both scale and adaptability and personalisation in MOOC I am working on now. It will be relatively primitive to begin with but I think we can really do a lot of personalised learning using data from MOOCs – at least I hope so, and we will see what the outcome might be from the first iteration of this experiment!


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