Video must not kill the lecture

June 26, 1998

Jim Stevenson urges caution on filming high-quality lectures and distributing them widely. He says a series on the dos and don'ts of lecturing would be better

SOME years ago a colleague at the University of Oxford told me rather glumly that his teaching load was 11 lectures. "Eleven lectures a week," I said, with some surprise, "That's a lot." "No, no," he hastily corrected, "Eleven lectures a year." Those were the real good old days. A privileged 5 per cent of 19, 20 and 21-year-olds at university. Essays and one-to-one tutorials driven by the occasional brilliant lecture.

When I was making my first television programmes, my boss insisted that I read Michael Faraday's Advice to Lecturers. It is a stunning little collection of essays ranging from developing academic argument to the practicalities of using notes, holding the audience's interest and turning story telling into an art. In the 19th century the Royal Institution was packed to the rafters every time Faraday lectured. It would be today. In fact, it still is for prestigious discourses and the Christmas Lectures. The public scholarly lecture is alive and well.

"How can you make television programmes," my mentor asked, "until you can lecture?" Lecturing is a bedrock of teaching and communication, it is a springboard of ideas. Lecturing is principally about telling stories. Stories to extend your mind, stories to inspire you to think.

Factual television also tells stories and it does so by lecturing. Not so much in the formal sense, but from Kenneth Clark's Civilisation through James Cameron and John Pilger to Adam Hart Davies, these presenter-led programmes are all lectures - richly illustrated but lectures none the less.

The learning comes afterwards when the viewer dives for the library or dinner party. This is why Faraday is as relevant to the television producer as to the university lecturer. The television documentary is at one end of the lecturing spectrum - the talking head looking into the lens is at the other. From Horizon to the news, factual television, contrary to appearances, is all lecturing.

In the universities this inspirational approach through the lecture is perhaps rarer than it should be. The mere transfer of notes from a lecturer's notes to a student's notes via the lecture medium is quaint, ineffective and there are, of course, alternatives. Distance learning methods work. Computer-based learning works. Books work. We all know that the past 30 years have seen the almost exponential growth of distance learning through print and by electronic means. The variety of packages and systems has enormously enhanced the bran tub of materials on which students can draw. Universities are becoming multimedia adventure playgrounds where new communication systems get invented and used in ever more remarkable ways, hooking people into global tutorials, enabling them to learn where they want, when they want and to do it effectively.

But, if the post-Dearing higher education teaching debate is anything to go by, there is some confusion about distance and open learning on the one hand and lecturers and lecturing on the other, as though they were alternatives. There is a need to understand that the lecture-centred approach is driving subsequent learning. This confusion fogs the quality debate and, because the lecture can be a misused medium in universities the enhancement of quality in lecturing seems a high priority. Some feel, for example, that there is mileage in bringing high quality lectures to the attention of academics through the medium of video. But before this is embraced some cautionary thoughts.

Take any "top" lecturer and record his or her lecture on video tape and you have something much worse than the lecture. Television diminishes reality. Record and transmit the Christmas Lectures or the Dimbleby Lecture and you have a flavour of the event and the privilege of seeing a renowned speaker in their element - but it is not the same as being there. The camera is not you, you are an eavesdropper, seeing the event second-hand through the wrong end of a telescope.

You are not involved. A lecturer, walking about, pointing at OHP slides, bringing rabbits out of a hat and pulling forth gasps and laughs from a 200-strong audience is not talking to you alone in your armchair from your VCR. To expect lecturing technique to shine through such recordings is unrealistic. So the Institute of Learning and Teaching should hesitate in its consideration of a national scheme to get films of university lectures made and distributed. They may add to a bank of scholarly archives - a most valuable exercise in itself - but they will not teach teachers to teach.

So what can be done? Sir Ron Dearing's timely report made a major thrust towards the enhancement of quality teaching in universities. With up to 45 per cent of each year's cohort continuing into higher education, this quality enhancement is no small task. Today's students demand input and, increasingly, value for money. Bad lecturers will not get away with it.

So, would it not be more useful to explore technique as Faraday did and produce a series of video programmes revealing the dos and don'ts of lecturing? Again not an easy thing to do. But it can be done and in such a way as to inspire a whole new generation of lecturers. Such a product would make a real contribution to teaching excellence in higher education and begin to blow away the fog which surrounds the distance learning/lecture debate.

Universities are no longer for the intellectual elite who can happily learn from primary sources and one-to-one tutorials. We have to grab students en masse and stimulate them to learn. They have to get degrees and other qualifications and they have to enjoy it.

Above all, lecturers have, in this new world, to be good deliverers, whether they be in the flesh or on tape. Faraday underlines this in one of his essays "for though to all true philosophers science and nature will have charms innumerable in every dress, yet I am sorry to say that the generality of mankind cannot accompany us one short hour unless the path is strewed with flowers".

Jim Stevenson, former head of programmes at the BBC's Open University Production Centre, is chief executive of the EBS Trust, which manages the Higher Education Video Consortium.

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