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Is lecture really the thing that needs fixing?

August 12, 2014, 12:22 pm

d510c2df-22fc-47b9-8511-e1e69a9d560bOne 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.

The thought experiment continues: My employer believes that health is a concern for me and my loved ones, and so I am issued a special device to wear that tracks my steps, measures my heart rate, and collects other forms of data to report and help me analyze my performance. But still, I only need to not sit all day in order to meet the insurance requirement. Just strap the device on and go for that one-mile, one-hour walk and I am good to go.

Question: Does my employer really value my health? And do I really value my health if I am willing to settle for this rock-bottom minimum my employer requires?

Hopefully you can see where this thought experiment relates to the issue with teaching. On the one hand, universities can – intentionally or otherwise – make teaching a third-or-lower priority for faculty members by fostering a culture where effective teaching and student learning don’t factor into hiring, salary, promotion, or tenure. If that’s the case, then faculty – who are indeed busy – will take the path of least resistance, whether they want to or not.

And putting complex data-driven metrics around a path of least resistance is not going to make that path suddenly as productive or effective as paths of greater resistance, which is where you usually find the most inspiring results.

But here’s the other thing: Faculty can choose not to take the path of least resistance if they really wanted to, regardless of their institutional culture. This may sound insensitive to those working in those cultures, but I am not suggesting that you carve out 8–10 hours a week to study and work on teaching. There are so many things that faculty can do to improve their teaching, and more importantly student learning, that take basically no time at all. Check the event schedule for your teaching and learning center, if you have one, and you’ll likely see events that are done over lunch (which is already in your schedule, right?) or which are online and don’t require you leaving the office or even staying the entire time. I’m just a busy guy simply isn’t a valid reason to do nothing beyond the bare minimum.

It’s just what I tell my kids, who are getting old enough to learn about time and task management: If you really want something to happen, you make it a priority and make the time. I have to conclude that I think many universities, and sadly many faculty, say that they want effective teaching and high student performance, but they don’t want it badly enough to make sacrifices for it. Indeed, this quote from the Chronicle article was telling:

Rather than disrupt traditional higher education, Mr. Samson’s idea is to disrupt the lives of professors as little as possible. “We don’t have time to go to meetings in the center for teaching and learning,” he says. “We have research to do.”

Or, to look at the headline for the article, why is it we anthropomorphize the lecture, like it’s a living thing that can be sick and then fixed? It’s just an instructional method, to be used in contexts and in degrees that are appropriate for students – but it seems like some folks are so attached to it that they think of lecture as something to take to the doctor rather than something that the doctor might use.

I mean no disrespect to Perry Samson, who seems like a good guy, obviously innovative and smart (TIL he helped create the Weather Underground, a website to which I am addicted in all my map-nerd glory). His heart, I think, is in the right place. I just think it’s misguided to treat something as an engineering problem, to be solved with design and technology, when it really is a problem with people and the cultures they create – and curate.

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