'MTV generation learns through fun'

Dull teaching styles risk losing students to online education, US innovator warns. Olga Wojtas reports

September 11, 2008

An American lecturer believes he has found the secret of engaging the "MTV generation" who have an attention span of "minutes".

James Dever, who presented an award-winning paper on making learning fun at a recent international Improving University Teaching conference, said that academics who failed to inject humour into their lectures risked losing students to the burgeoning world of online courses.

He said that today's students were simply unable to sit through an hour's lecture unless tutors made them fun.

"I'm not talking about getting up there wearing a clown nose and funny shoes and telling jokes," he said. "We're not comedians. I don't tell jokes in the classroom. I'll talk about something funny that happened to me, I tell stories about my wife and my grandchildren."

Mr Dever, 58, is a lecturer in entrepreneurship and strategic management at Florida State University and will shortly complete his PhD at the University of Strathclyde's Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship. After retiring from business aged 41, he decided when he was 50 to study for the bachelors degree he never completed in the 1960s.

Stressing that his undergraduate experience was in the United States, he said: "The worst thing in the world for me was these one-way lectures. I sat through so many lectures that were just so boring."

But while he put up with it, he said today's young students were less tolerant.

"The old guy who stands there and just lectures to the class - these days are gone. Their attention span is in the minutes now," he said.

Mr Dever said that studies as far back as the 1970s had shown attention spans of only 15 to 20 minutes at a time. But today's bricks-and-mortar institutions now faced a threat from online courses that engaged students and avoided the problems of one-way lectures. The website Elearners.com now lists 143 accredited online universities.

Mr Dever said that induction courses for new lecturers should include the importance of humour, and everyone was capable of using it. But he warned that it was imperative never to make jokes at anyone else's expense. One of his students once said he was going to miss the next class because he was attending a Star Wars convention dressed as Darth Vader.

"I said something off the wall, and the kid never came back to class. You can't under any circumstances belittle anyone, especially your students."

His paper at the Improving University Teaching conference in Strathclyde last month won the Bill and Ginny McKeachie Award, set up by Bill McKeachie, the former director of the Centre for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan. This gave him a $1,000 travel and expenses grant to fund his appearance at the conference.

olga.wojtas@tsleducation.com

JAMES DEVER IN HIS OWN WORDS

All of you are aware of the discount retail chain in America that advertises low prices and has become one of the largest companies in the world. They easily make up for their discount prices with volume sales. Not everyone can do that. Two truck drivers went to local farmers and purchased a truckload of watermelons for $2 each. They loaded their truck, hauled the watermelons 300 miles north and sold them for $1.50 apiece, losing 50 cents per melon. They did this once a week for three weeks. When they came back to work, the boss asked: "Why did you go broke?" Their answer: "We would have done well if we had just had a bigger truck."

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