From where I sit - Digital killing the lecturing stars

June 9, 2011

I have a sneaking suspicion that we university lecturers are so good at incorporating new media into our work that we may do ourselves out of a job.

When I was an undergraduate student, the only technology a lecturer had was a microphone. That was, of course, about 300 years ago - well, it was the 1980s, but that was before most of my current students were born, so for them it might as well have been the 1700s.

There was no such thing as taking the register at classes. As a colleague put it recently: "If you had a lecture or a tutorial, you just went." No roll call was needed, because you had to attend classes in order to get the information.

If you missed a lecture, you hoped a kind friend would give you their notes - and prayed that they had paid attention and written down the right thing.

I don't remember any photocopied sheets, handouts with the basic material you needed or even unit guides, unless you were doing distance courses (off-campus or extramural). University learning was about attending lectures and furiously taking notes, applying that knowledge at tutorials, and reading widely about the subject from the reading list and beyond. You had to think about and source material for yourself.

With the wonders of digital technology, university learning has become high-tech. In my lectures, I love to use PowerPoint slides with links to YouTube clips and other material. My slides are posted on the unit's website each week, and my lectures are recorded and made available via the library website.

Students can download the unit guide, which contains lengthy reading lists for each topic covered. There is a class reader that, for A$20 (£13), gives the students photocopies of the weekly readings; there are links on the website to further reading; and there are online discussions, too.

With so many more learning tools, you would think that the standard of learning would improve. But I don't think it has for the majority of students. The work submitted is certainly no better - and many assessors say it is worse.

I hear my colleagues complain that never have so few students attended class; that if there are penalties for poor attendance, students either turn up to the minimum number of classes required or cop the 10 per cent penalty. One colleague was devastated when only nine students across three campuses turned up to one of her lectures - and she is a superbly engaging lecturer.

When I think about it, though, what reason is there to turn up to on-campus lectures? You can access recordings of them made on the day they are given, and use an audio-visual option that plays the slides in sync. You can do all this while sitting at home in your pyjamas. Why would you brave the icy Melbourne winter, haphazard public transport or sky-high parking fees to struggle in to university, only to have to sit in a windowless lecture theatre with faulty temperature control so it's either boiling or freezing, just to receive the same information?

And if you need to ask questions about assignments and so on, you can email the lecturer any time and expect a reply.

I think the days of the lecturer standing at a lectern and pontificating about a subject to the 30 per cent of students who bother to turn up are numbered.

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