Is lecture really the thing that needs fixing? (Chronicle)

August 12, 2014, 12:22 pm

By Robert Talbert

One of my Twitter people asked me to share my thoughts on yesterday’s Chronicle article, “Can Universities Use Data to Fix What Ails the Lecture?” At the time, I skimmed the article and replied that LectureTools, the technological tool developed by Perry Samson to gather real-time data from students during a lecture, reminded me of the contraption you see in the photo to your left. That’s an automated chalkboard eraser. As technology goes, it’s quite effective in what it does. Just look at how clean that board is! Which is great but… that’s a chalkboard for goodness’ sake. A piece of communications technology that is not significantly different than prehistoric cave drawing, and which has been improved upon countless times. (Purists who still cling to chalkboards: You guys are Luddites. Sorry.) Strapping an awesome piece of technology to a chalkboard doesn’t make the chalkboard suddenly better.

Based on the headline and framing of the article, you might be tempted to think that the problem is that lecture is ineffective and that data might be able to fix it. But that’s not really it. (Nor is the problem that students are stupid and lazy, which you might get from the comment section.) Actually I think Samson himself nails the problem:

He is not shy about admitting where teaching falls on the list of priorities for most of his peers: a distant third, after publishing articles and landing research grants. “Instructors want to do the right thing,” he says. “They’re just busy guys, and they don’t sense that the bean-counting is heavily weighted toward the teaching.”

In that one quote, you get everything you need to know about why traditional instructor-centered teaching still reigns surpreme on many university campuses, despite mountains of evidence, not to mention anecdotes, that interactive-engagement methods are far more effective. It all boils down to that one word: Priorities.

Here’s a thought experiment. Let’s suppose my employer rolls out a new health insurance plan which will cover all my medical bills for the year as long as I spend one hour a day exercising. By “exercising” we are going to set the bar very low: It only means, “not sitting”. So, if I go to my treadmill and set it for 1 mile per hour and walk on it for an hour, I’m covered. Now, in my heart I know that this is not really exercise; and I know that my body will be much better off if I set it for, say, 5 mph and do a brisk walk for an hour; and I even have a desire to make my body as healthy as possible. But that’s above and beyond what my employer requires, and I have a lot of other stuff to get done during the day, so I’m not going to wear myself out with a brisk walk when I can just sludge along at 1 mph.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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