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March 15, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Sitting Ducks

“SOME PEOPLE TALK IN THEIR SLEEP. LECTURERS TALK WHILE OTHER PEOPLE SLEEP.” ALBERT CAMUS.

Lectures are the standard by which misery and boredom are measured. For hundreds of years—as early as 1360— university students have been forced to be passive spectators in their own education experience, despite criticism that lectures limit active participation and are inutile at increasing learning. Most universities hold lecturing sacred, but new alternatives are gradually rising from the the cracks.

Though colleges are unwilling to do away with the cornerstone of academic teaching, they can’t deny the appeal of technological progress. Instead of overhauling centuries of traditional communication, a middle ground between active learning and lecturing was found by incorporating online technology. It began modestly, with ‘virtual lectures’ that allowed students to watch professors’ presentations from any location, at any time. In 2012, we’ve moved on to virtual note-passing via Twitter, class blogs, and Facebook study groups. There’s evidence that these types of changes have improved learning, but like any deviation from the norm, they take time and experimentation.

When Dr. Dalton Kehoe, a communications studies professor at York University, began taping his lectures from his desk, student enthusiasm hit an all-time low. After realising that his talking-heads method of teaching was just as boring on video as it was in person, he incorporated humorous Youtube clips at 20 minute intervals during live lectures. His students commented that the bite-sizing of lecture topics mixed with the internet “laugh breaks” helped to hold their attention and make the material absorbable. Kehoe’s success has inspired others at YU to merge technology with instructing. Dr. Diane Zorn includes interactive exercises in her online “minilectures”, asking students to search for relevant information and carry out specific online tasks in the middle of her lecture videos. This, she says, prevents students from falling back into bad lecture-bred habits. “Passive learning is even worse online than in the classroom. At least in the lecture hall there are people around you that if you fall asleep, someone can give you a nudge”, adding that students “want to discover things on the internet themselves”.

Salient asked the Centre for Academic Development (CAD) whether the winds of technological change had been blowing through VUW. The CAD is a unit that aims to improve the quality and effectiveness of education at Vic through professional development in teaching and research in to higher education. They told us that the University has recently implemented an electronic lecture response system to help academics make their lectures more effective and engaging. Additionally, they pointed out Blackboard, our very own online teaching and learning environment, which has been improved though the addition of interactive blogs, podcasts, and voice boards—even if the features are yet to catch on. But the gospel of technology is not without its critics.

The first dissenting camp argues that technology is only a temporary solution that masks the fundamental problems of passive learning and one-way communication. The other sees it as a distraction which cheapens the revered pursuit of intellectual achievement.

Deliberate practice is a subset of experiential learning. Basically, it swaps lectures for tutorial-style classes, where the material is learned before the lesson, and the students are split into small groups to discuss and solve a problem. The lecturer then spends the time facilitating discussion and answering questions. Thanks to recent exposure in the New York Times and The Economist, deliberate practice has been gaining traction. Most of the good press comes from an experiment headed by Nobel Prize laureate Carl Wieman. 12 weeks into a science course Wieman’s team divided the class in two, leaving one half to continue with lectures and putting the other half through deliberate practice. During the experiment, the teachers were able to see common points of confusion and provide immediate feedback whenever students got answers wrong. After a week, both groups were given a test on the same material. The results were dramatic—the test group did more than twice as well as the control group, and their attendance improved by 20 per cent. When surveyed later, most students said they preferred deliberate practice.

However, one successful trial isn’t going to set the educational world alight or compensate for its deficiencies. For one thing, deliberate practice began life as a weapon in the arsenal of performing arts schools, and its lack of scholarly integrity doesn’t sit well with the academic community. For another, deliberate practice has only been useful in the scientific and mathematical disciplines, which already have hands-on components. They deal with facts and absolutes, so the proverbs of learning by doing and practice making perfect are guaranteed to pay off. Can it mould to the abstractions of the humanities?

Sort of. The older, more sophisticated sibling of deliberate practice is peer instruction (PI), otherwise known as the flipped classroom. PI was the brainchild of Harvard professor Eric Mazur, another disciple of active learning, whose students—supposedly the brightest young minds of America—were failing dismally, despite his polished lectures and practised delivery. The breaking point came halfway through a lecture when he asked the students who had grasped the concept to explain it to the peers around them. Three minutes later, most of the class were back on track for the first time in weeks. And voila—PI was born. From its humble beginnings in 1991, PI has grown in to an applicable method of active learning. The logic behind it reasons that students have to personalise new information in order to truly understand it. When other students ‘teach’ each other, the roadmaps of their understanding are still fresh, or as Dr. Mazur puts it, “you’re a student and you’ve only recently learned this, so you still know where you got hung up, because it’s not that long ago that you were hung up on that very same thing. Whereas Professor Mazur got hung up on this point when he was 17, and he no longer remembers how difficult it was back then. He has lost the ability to understand what a beginning learner faces.”

Peer Instruction is similar to Deliberate Practice in that its crux is communication between students about material learned before class, and the lecturer acts as an arbitrator and guide. Yet, the main differences are that PI works just as successfully within the social sciences as it does in applied sciences. With a longer and more proven track record than deliberate practice (the fad du jour) students’ critical thinking abilities are enhanced and their methods of perceiving the information are bettered.

PI hasn’t resonated as well with new students who are just as resistant as conservative deans to ‘investigational’ learning styles. With rising tuition costs and a shaky job market, no one wants to be the guinea pig for methods that contradict 700 years of educational theory and require them to put in more work. Additionally, PI has no place in university-literally. Each of the thousands of lecture-hall spaces in the world were built with the sole purpose of focusing attention on the person at the podium, an inconvenience that’s unlikely to change.

Despite the hurdles, PI and methods like it have slowly infiltrated the lecture halls of Ivy League schools, thanks in large part to their bloated ‘experimental teaching’ budgets (Harvard’s is currently $40 million). This is not an option for VUW. Though the CAD’s Dr. Irina Elgort is adamant about the need to “explore and adopt new ways of teaching and learning that take advantage of research into best practice in higher education and of technological innovation”, she does not believe that teaching modes will change drastically in the near future.

Aside from the costs and unconventionality, she thinks that “the key is in providing the infrastructure and support to academics who want to implement innovative non-traditional learning and teaching approaches, and reward and acknowledge them for these innovations.” At VUW, this translates into “having flexible teaching and learning spaces, technology support behind academic initiatives, professional development that increases staff capabilities and, importantly, a strategic vision of Victoria as a University that promotes and values teaching and learning innovation.”

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