The magic of face-to-face teaching

The spark of connection between lecturers and students cannot be duplicated, although digitisation has its place in preserving special, life-changing lectures

August 21, 2008

His voice was strong but his arguments were stronger, cutting through severe illness and fatigue. Edward Said remains one of the most innovative, important and wide-ranging intellectuals of the 20th century. Like so many of the great scholarly activists, his death signalled more than the conclusion of an academic’s life – the ending of a particular way of thinking, speaking and believing that scholarship can intervene and transform.

When listening to the great academic public speakers – from Chomsky to Zinn, from Zizek to Foucault and Baudrillard – their passion, belief and commitment are often overwhelming. Hearing Edward Said deliver his last public address, “Memory, inequality and power”, at the University of California, Berkeley was incredibly moving. As I listened, I felt privileged to hear this voice slice through hypocrisy and injustice.

But I was not sitting in the auditorium at Berkeley. I can hear this lecture only because UC is part of iTunes U, the university arm of the iTunes Store. Many universities around the world have committed to using the store in different ways, from hosting everyday teaching resources to exercises in corporate branding and public relations.

Most member institutions provide lectures, study skills assistance and public speeches free of charge. iTunes U has been growing since 2005, and the scale of the downloadable files is of such a volume that it is like a YouTube for academics.

iTunes U is a powerful embodiment of the lasting value of the academic lecture, yet the pedagogic talk in the past 20 years – or nearly four decades if we track the impact of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society – has deployed language such as student-centred learning, facilitation and empowerment.

This “movement” has now been renewed through Web 2.0 collaboration and wiki editing. Sadly, its trajectory has meant that three vital words have been neglected: curriculum, leadership and motivation.

Student-centred learning has meant a long-term attack on the lecture as an avenue of learning, teaching and thinking. In such an environment they are framed (and abused) as top-down, passive encounters that drain enthusiasm from learners.

But I have always believed in lectures. My life was changed – radically and immediately – by the first university lecture I attended. Richard Bosworth, my extraordinary professor at the time, delivered such a passionate presentation of why history matters that in 50 minutes he altered my life and that of hundreds of contemporaries.

A wiki-enabled website or group work would not have achieved the same result. It was the motivation to believe in and follow a great scholar that gave us the confidence to think that we could live differently and perhaps defiantly.

This moment of pause and reflection about the lecture as a platform for ideas has come through three separate events in the last month. First, I have been spring-cleaning my hard drive, cataloguing hundreds of lectures downloaded from iTunes U.

While they are uneven in quality – I would rather submit to tooth extraction than suffer a long train ride with some of the iPodded scholars – the inspiration in hearing Helene Cixous and Henry Jenkins present their view of the world is powerful and bracing. They are valuable as professional development materials for teachers, yet remain deeply useful as resources for research.

A second motivation in thinking about the role and function of the lecture in contemporary education was as part of my annual review of teaching, curriculum, student development and results.

I noted an incredible – and aberrant – outcome from my first-year students for 2007-08. Generally, we observe a gradual improvement in our students, with the motivated hard workers among them increasing by a grade through two semesters.

But this year – and it has never happened in my teaching – a group of seven young women moved from marks in the 33-40 per cent range and into the 63-68 per cent spectrum. I have never seen such a shift. While trying to explain or at least contexualise why this group of women had advanced so much, one of them sent me an email on a Friday night.

Fridays mattered to us. We had emailed each other on Friday nights through the year, joking that we were the only two people in Brighton who had not gone out drinking. It was pleasing to reconnect with her in our usual timeslot, even during the summer break.

This young woman had earned her results and I hope she is as proud of herself as I am of her. But there is no doubt that attendance at my Monday 9am lectures was high throughout the year. The seminar discussions were volatile, considered, stroppy and often hilarious.

It was a pleasure to be with this group of people. I missed them the week after semester finished and still think of them at 9am every Monday morning. Clearly they had a huge impact on me as well. But it was interesting that this young woman mentioned the lectures in her email to me, not the course, assessment or seminars.

The third reason for this reconsideration of the lecture as a tool emerged the day after receiving this email. I found another of those articles from another of those educational technology consultants that do not teach because they are too busy consulting.

This one was written by Cornel Reinhart and included in the 2008 edition of the journal On the Horizon. He argues for the importance of “constructing the café university”. A former director of the University without Walls programme at Skidmore College, he is currently, quoting from his own biography, “an international consultant assisting educators with the architecture and pedagogy of learning online”.

These men (and they do tend to men) always focus on learning online rather than simply learning. Change, fear and crisis are the propulsion for their consultancies. Continuity and consolidation do not make money.

The article is the most aggressive critique, dismissal and attack on the lecture as a space for education that I have read in a while. Supposedly, universities must change to “remain competitive in the delivery of information”. If we succeed in this task then academics may move into pizza.

But it is the lecture that is the Death Star target for this digi-Jedi. Luke Podwalker saves the Google Generation from the evils of analogue time and space.

The lecture has been dying a slow intellectual death for some years now. It is widely and loudly denounced at most contemporary academic conferences and meetings. Active-learning strategies have long since swept the field, now taken up by most accrediting institutions as the standard for excellence in learning.

Reinhart is drawn to wireless connectivity, and he is not talking about nana’s transistor radio in the kitchen.

However, he has a problem. The actual evidence undercuts his argument. He believes in podcasting but is horrified that many of the sonic files in iTunes U are – cover your eyes, children – lectures. They also seem quite popular. He wants to be part of “post-modern tertiary learning” (fascinating use of the hyphen), “the emerging global Digital University” and a “constructivist pedagogical movement”. Don’t we all? Well, maybe not.

This type of language surfaced earlier in educational history. Part of this agenda is the rejuvenation of Illich 2.0 and “radical educational deinstitutionalisation”. Basically, it is a marketised “revolution” or anarcho-syndicalism without the poor people and redistribution of wealth.

Poverty tends to cut away the possibilities of broadband and the purchase of ephemeral gadgetry. The trouble with Reinhart’s argument is that more students are enrolling in universities – educational institutions – than at any point in history. The credentials and qualifications matter to students. They want value for their fees rather than “post-modern tertiary learning”.

They do not equate “value” with wireless networks and podcasts. As Nicholas Carr has argued in The Big Switch, the Web is not special or radical. It is a utility like electricity. The students are not attending university to hear podcasts. They can do that at home. They are coming to universities for the experience of education, not to “experience” the digitally convergent equivalent of electricity.

Alice, one of the remarkable young women I taught this year, had a habit of working out the cost of each lecture as a percentage of her fees. In unexpected (and often inconvenient) moments she would remind her friends that “we are paying £137 for this lecture.”

In constructivist land, consultants summon a version of education where vegan activists gather in beanbags and engage in student-centred learning while tapping into their wireless network. But our students are more focused, disciplined and ruthless in their goals, expectations and aspirations than we would imagine.

Also, in these “it’s digital – it’s new – be afraid” articles, all the attention is placed on the process of learning, repeating words like constructivism and postmodernism (or post-modernism) as if we all agree on their meaning. The actual content – the expertise in a discipline, field or subject – is unmentioned.

The remarkable array of lectures archived on iTunes U can be interpreted in many ways. However, one fact is certain. The lecture is not dying. In fact, it is being rejuvenated in its social and symbolic function through podcasts, vodcasts and the burgeoning archive.

Innovations in the lecture as a form are present. The University of Pennsylvania features “60-second lectures”, where academics deliver one thought in a podcast.

Warwick University has deployed an interview format, where great scholars discuss their research and recent publications. The University of Otago offers the full suite of science and humanities lectures, from professorial inaugurals to significant keynotes. Postgraduate research and visiting speakers gain an audience larger than could fill the biggest auditorium.

Digitisation, at its most effective and efficient, should take the best of analogue materials, genres and forms and stabilise and preserve them for diverse audiences. Lectures are special spaces – they are fast, intense, efficient and motivational. Podcasts can never capture the analogue immediacy, energy and affectivity of the experience. Lectures are analogue.

The energy and spark of connection between lecturers and students in a particular place and moment cannot be repeated. But to hear the greatest minds of our time speak to the future even after their death may be the sonic equivalent of a low-resolution scan, but the pixels offer potential.

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