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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Best Lecture

I just read George Siemens post Will online lectures destroy universities?  He makes the point that despite articles like Why free online lectures will destroy universities – unless they get their act together fast:

Statements like “universities are obsolete” or “universities are dying” are comical. And untrue. Universities are continuing to grow in enrolment and general influence in society. Calling universities obsolete while we are early on in the so-called knowledge economy is like declaring factories obsolete in the 18th century just as the industrial revolution was taking hold. Utter nonsense.

While George does talk about challenges in education, I think he misses part of the point of the article.  And this is something that I’ve been thinking (and writing – see Physics Lectures) about for a long time.  Here’s the point:

  • It’s incredibly easy to capture and distribute lectures.
  • Rather than getting a lecture from whoever is teaching your course locally, wouldn’t it be better to get a world-class lecture.

As the article points out:

At the same time, millions of learners around the world are watching world-class lectures online about every subject imaginable, from fractional reserve banking to moral philosophy to pharmacology, supplied by Harvard, MIT, and The Open University.

Have you seen Planet Earth or watched a Professor Lewin physics presentation?  There’s basically no way to compete with those sources.  And wouldn’t it be better to get the best available lecture with local discussion, studying, testing, etc.?

I’m not quite sure that I buy the article’s contention that:

The simple fact is that university lectures never worked that well in the first place – it’s just that for centuries, we didn’t have any better option for transmitting information. In fact, the success of top universities, both now and historically, is in spite of lectures, not because of it.

Maybe that’s because I’ve learned a lot in schools that way.  But even if you keep lectures, but you open up everyone to the Best Lecture available on a given topic … The implications here for education are profound. 

Best Lectures in Corporate Training

I also believe the implications here are profound for corporate training.  We can continue to hide behind the myth that our content is special and different.  Some of the time, that’s quite true.  But there’s a lot of content (leadership, management, safety, etc.) that really should not be replicated by every organization.

Instead, we should be looking for the Best Lecture and work our specifics around that.  Of course, that’s sometimes made harder because despite the Open Content movement in education, there’s less of a movement in corporate learning (and some barriers: Open Content in Workplace Learning?, Creative Commons Use in For-Profit Company eLearning?).

What’s also interesting about this situation is that there are similar barriers from the content creators standpoint.  In the Business of Learning, I talk about the challenges as a content creator and how the business models might work.  And every day, I’m talking with people who have great content and could be creating the Best Lecture on a topic.  And while they can easily capture it, getting it distributed in a way that pays is difficult.  Instead, they need to package it into a unit that is self-contained.  They need something similar to an LMS or a course that runs in a corporate LMS.  But it certainly won’t look like a Best Lecture model with corporate eLearning professionals being able to act like local discussion, studying, testing.

I’m not sure what any of this will look like in education or in corporate training – but I am sure it will be quite different in 20 years from how we do it today.


Unknown said...

I agree with the absurdity of the claim that universities are obsolete! Thanks for the interesting blog topic.

Anonymous said...

Universities will never be obsolete! But with luck they will be universally accessible to all who wish to advance themselves and expand their minds through in-person or e-learning.

It's our hope that OpenSesame will drive the emergence of the "Best Lecture" in different corporate training sectors by enabling consumers and elearning thinkers to compare apples to apples in an open and transparent marketplace. Just as eBay often elucidates the true market value of a good, we hope that OpenSesame will identify to "Best Lecture" for customer service, leadership and the like.

Thanks for the great post!

Tony Karrer said...

Kelly - are you selling a course or a content piece that will be extended by corporations?

John said...

Some time ago I read about a possible decline (not death) of universities due to the cost of attending. As tuition increased, the article went, fewer people would be able to afford to attend. I believe the article was by Michael Strong of FLOW.

He noted, as do you, the availability of great lectures and other content on the web. His prediction, however, was the rise of distance-learning on a very large scale: by, for example, Wal-Mart. Just as they have reduced the prices of prescription drugs and consumer goods, so could volume reduce the cost of a distance education.

Now, when it comes to corporate education, as you mention, licensing is a big issue. I have found video clips I'd love to use, but ownership or creator is unclear and there is no indication of a license that allows performance as part of a commercial course. Many creators are displaying CC license types, but the majority are not. This probably means that they "retain all rights", either intentionally or by default. It would really help if youtube, Vimeo and others would at least ask those uploading video (and similarly for other content in other places) to explicitly specify rights.

In the open source software world programmers have been specifying rights for years. I wish it were more common with material designed for, or usable for, learning.

ttv said...

I agree with that Henry.

Tony Karrer said...

John - what a great comment. There are definitely those issues and normally we just pass by them.

But that just means opportunity. Become the site that provides the source of high quality assets that can be used.

Vic Uzumeri said...

Since I teach at a land-grant business school, I have several observations/opinions to share FWIW:

1. University education is more needed than ever, so universities aren't in overall decline - but parts of their repertoire will/should adapt to changing technology and societal needs. Some institutions will adapt. Others won't. So some institutions may decline, while others thrive.

2. Learning occurs in the student's brain - not the instructor's. There is an unfortunate tendency to judge teaching by its broadcast quality, rather than its ability to trigger student intellectual activity.

3. The value of live lectures started to die when students stopped taking good notes. Not sure when that started, but at least 10 years ago. Now they watch as though they are watching a reality show. To me, it seems that a lot less mental processing is going on.

4. The real value of good faculty is not their ability to 'broadcast' a lecture (live, video or memorex). It is their ability to talk to a student, see the hesitant body language, hear the edge of uncertainty in their voice and guess accurately why they are hung up. Most of those cues occur on an individual student basis. So faculty cannot deliver their highest value by simply 'broadcasting' - regardless of the medium. I am just as hamstrung in a large lecture hall as I am when I record for online viewing. Both are pretty much one-way.

Bottom line - We need to totally rethink the role of technology in university teaching. Instead of looking for better ways to broadcast (or ways to find better broadcast materials - there has been a diligent enough search for that), we need to focus on improving teaching operations associated with delivering feedback: grading, correcting, problem-solving. IMHO, current technologies (LMS, LCMS) should give way to live webinars, and hopefully a whole new genre of homework/feedback systems that currently don't exist.

I should be able to webcam a verbal/pen review of a paper, click one button and know that it is instantly available to the intended student.

I should be able to invite experts from industry to participate in a live webinar - with their time involvement measured in minutes, not hours (or days to travel to a college town).

I should be able to go to company office or plant and host my course - with live questions from students and the ability to point a camera at the answer.

Don't get me started :-)

Robert Becker said...

I like Vic's comment that learning takes place in the mind of the student, not in the broadcast of the lecturer.

I would add that all great teachers are great in part because they continuously learn from their students, not because they have expertise. The Socratic dialogue - not Socrates himself - triggers learning.

Quoting Tony: "Rather than getting a lecture from whoever is teaching your course locally, wouldn’t it be better to get a world-class lecture?"

In my opinion, no, definitely not. Just as most teachers cannot give a world class lecture, most students cannot learn from a world class lecture. The Harvard professor has no role in the classrooms of the community college.

Apart from that, I find the seeming Maoist presumption of a single source of perfect knowledge to be unsettling.

Culture can gain nothing by applying the great man theory of history to the personal experience of learning. I say the more diversity, the better!

Tony Karrer said...

I agree that you would likely want different lectures aimed at different audiences/content. However, my guess is that you've not looked at Lewin's physics lectures from MIT. We are talking incredible lectures on basic physics that is being taught in countless universities. If I'm teaching physics, then trying to be as good as Lewin is just not going to happen. Instead, my job should be to figure out how to use what he's doing to create the best possible learning experience for my students.

It's great that we are looking at how to help students learn - that is the goal. But saying - "our students are different" is the same thing that corporations say - "our company is different" - and then go out and produce marginal content. And believe me - I lectured for 10 years. I believe I was decent at it. But I'm also sure that there are world class lectures going on around the same content that I should have leveraged.

David Koehn said...


I'm not exactly sure where I am going with this...but if:

* the content delivered is "trusted" as best in class

* content had assessment associated with it

* transcripts were "open" as part of, say, my profile

Then the most prestigious university would have nothing over a learner who received high marks for all of the course work offered by the university from the same or better quality instructors.

If my transcript is populated with nothing but "A"s (whatever that may mean) on courses delivered via the Web from the most trusted subject matter experts on the planet--am I more or less educated than a Harvard grad in the same Major?

Stimulating post! Where does this go from here?

David Koehn
Director of Product Strategy
Saba People Learning
t: @davidkoehn

Tony Karrer said...

David - you captured the essence of it. What I also wonder is whether the same thing is not true outside of education, i.e., training?

Grapes said...

David's point is a valid one, but IMHO, the entire topic is limited by the narrowness of the educational model that is being assumed.

The 'lecture' is a delivery vehicle for pre-structured knowledge. Clearly, some faculty are better packagers and deliverers than others.

However, experiential learning is a huge part of most educational programs. Think of the Harvard method business 'case study'. Think of the 'lab' that is core to engineering and science courses. Think of the 'internship' that is central to a lot of social science programs.

If I am teaching business strategy (a major business school discipline area BTW), I would think very little of any A that came from a course with a purely lecture and quiz format.

That is irrespective of whether it was delivered by a 'celebrity'.

So, at a minimum, we need to partition the curriculum into those courses where the model of great lecturer + A is feasible - and those courses where it is not.

Then, as my message suggested, we need to give the second category at least a small bit of the love that the eLearning community has showered on the first.

Unknown said...

What is missing in this discussion is the role that Universities have long monopolized as "curator" of educational content. They decide what needs to be learned and what constitutes mastery. I believe if university's understand that as their major role in the upcoming knowledge revolution, they will continue to be a valuable and vital source of education and difficult to compete with.

Tony Karrer said...

@Vic - you are exactly right that we need to think about all kinds of models. Certainly projects are likely best done locally - of course, you could get some very interesting effects with remote as well.

I do want to take a bit of exception to the word "celebrity." I'm not sure that really great lecturers are going to be "celebrities" especially at the start.

@Christine - Great point. Of course, in many courses the professor has significant control over what's taught.

What I wonder is whether I could have shown my students great lectures by other professors and then had discussions. Or even have it required for them to watch the lectures on their own time and then come to study sessions.

Could I get away with that?