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Attention Colleges and Universities: Kill the Lecture!

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In online education, it’s time to kill the lecture. The only reason the lecture has burrowed its way into educational videos is because faculty members know how to do it, and they have been doing it in classrooms for years and years. It is comparatively easy to put a camera in the back of the room, put a microphone on the instructor, and let ’er rip. But there are very few students out there -- online or in the classroom -- who are crying out, “Give us more lectures!”

Think about when you were a high school or college student. In how many lectures did you daydream, pass notes, update Facebook, draw intricate doodles, or simply doze off? So when viewing an online lecture video, what percentage of students do you think are also checking Tumblr and email, IMing, or even watching YouTube in another browser window? So why do we educators persist in duplicating the drudgery of the on-the-ground classroom online, aside from the fact that it’s easy?

You might be thinking about examples of lectures that complicate my characterizations. Previously, I’ve written about many of them in this column. I acknowledge there are open courseware lectures on topics, such as physics and artificial intelligence, that rack up tens of thousands of views from the general public. It’s also true that massive open online course (MOOC) platforms, such as Coursera, have made videos a central part of their course offerings. I’ll argue, though, that these are more than lectures, or, more accurately, these aren’t lectures at all.

Consider TED talks, which are 15-minute presentations from prominent thinkers and public intellectuals. It seems as if nearly every TED talk goes viral. One might point to them as examples of lectures done well. But what really goes into creating such a great lecture?

There’s a lot of work behind the scenes of every TED talk. Staffers work closely with presenters on their talks, constructing their slide decks and helping to hone the presentation to fit in perfectly with TED’s format and time constraints. It is less a lecture than it is a performance.

The very best lecturers are doing much more than simply reading notes or reciting facts. They are telling stories and connecting with the audience. When a chemistry professor demonstrates potassium reacting with water, we say she is performing an experiment. When a skilled literature instructor does a dramatic in-class reading of a Shakespeare passage, he is performing the bard’s work. These teachers are bringing their subjects to life. Some approach teaching like a classical pianist, with concentrated precision and close attention to details. Other teachers treat the classroom more like an improv comedy stage, never giving the same lecture twice but always riffing with the students and learning from each class. Regardless of the approach, through years of practice and honing their style, great teachers become great performers.

This is where video producers have a great opportunity to help subject matter experts bring their talent, expertise, and creativity to bear. Even with instructors who may be less dynamic, there is the opportunity to make the most of their creativity in some other way besides lecturing in front of the camera.

Ask an expert how she would explain the topic at a dinner party or to a group of senior citizens. Or ask her how she would make a short film if she had all of Lucasfilm and Pixar Animation Studios at her disposal. Sure, you might not have a direct line to George Lucas, but the creative spark should inspire ideas that you do have the means to pull off, even if it’s just a much better PowerPoint slide.

You don’t have to throw away the lecture method entirely. Have a professor watch a few TED talks and challenge him to come up with a presentation that would fit in. Concentrate on the preparation and the central point, and then trim the fat. And remind him that it will be easier than a TED talk, because you’ll have the opportunity to reshoot and edit.

It’s time to release online education from the shackles of the medieval classroom. Get creative and make every class video a performance worth watching.

This article appears in the August/September 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Kill the Lecture."

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