A lecture on lectures

Early in our interview, Professor Stilwell muses, “Good teachers can determine the trajectories of [our] lives.” Stacks of manila folders occupy his impressive wooden desk. These pillars stand as monuments to a lifetime of research. It’s a weighty – if not ironic – statement, given the growing malaise towards traditional educational models. Universities have long…

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Early in our interview, Professor Stilwell muses, “Good teachers can determine the trajectories of [our] lives.” Stacks of manila folders occupy his impressive wooden desk. These pillars stand as monuments to a lifetime of research. It’s a weighty – if not ironic – statement, given the growing malaise towards traditional educational models.

Universities have long faced threats from within: the 2011 attempt by the Dean of Arts to amalgamate and dissolve the department of Political Economy, the tumult of staff cuts in 2012 and its consequent backlash in 2013 are only recent examples of the university torn between crisis and profit.

But is there really a crisis dwelling within the way learning and teaching are currently operated?
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Having lectured through the wholly subsidised summer of Whitlam, the autumnal period of Hawke and HECS, through Keating and Howard and Rudd and Gillard, Stilwell agrees that changing economic conditions hold a greater impact on lecture attendance than technological developments.

“Attending lectures,” he tells me, “is no longer the primary focus of students’ lives.” Part-time, or even full-time, employment has placed greater stress on undergraduates. Where a student’s absence may barely arch a lecturer’s eyebrow, an irate employer may give them the sack.

While it may be convenient to blame the oft-reported cultural apathy of our generation, one cannot ignore the transformed socio-economic climate of 2013. The balmy 1970s era of free tuition has passed, and with it the professional, idle student.
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While technology often outpaces social mentalities in medical and legal spheres, the recurrent pedagogical debates between populism and elitism, and inclusivity and exclusivity deftly inform nascent technological advancements.

Technology has long disrupted traditional teacher-student dynamics through the development of ‘lecture capture’ infrastructure. Find a student who hasn’t accessed online lecture recordings at least once in their tertiary studies; then, find one who has never missed a lecture. It is guaranteed to be a futile endeavour.

Accessing lecture material – days, weeks, sometimes months – after the fact, and then binging on online content prior to an exam, results in a process Dr Anna Boucher calls ‘purged learning’. This is a deleterious process that corrodes holistic information retention.

The phenomenon will be abjectly familiar to most students. It’s a simple cycle of cramming for an exam, followed by ‘purging’ during the test – discharging all the information out. It is as timeworn a tradition as the notion of finals themselves.

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Stilwell posits that students hold “less respect for the opinions of other students.” While undergraduates often offer deeply prescient perspectives and incisive opinions, ultimately, he argues, student-student and student-teacher dialogues should be reserved for the tutorial room.

But such a model is the ideological antithesis of the Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. They are free, require no registration, and have an exponentially larger ratio of students to teachers – a ‘massive’ number of students.

Certain online platforms such as ‘edX’ and ‘Coursera’ are funded and supported by traditional learning institutions. edX, for example, is a collaboration between MIT and Harvard University. Concurrently, other popular MOOCs such as the ‘Khan Academy’ and the ‘University of Reddit’ were founded by individuals or loosely organised online communities. Remarkably, the MOOC phenomenon is an educational innovation advanced by extremely disparate forces; traditional, well-established, and powerful universities like Harvard and MIT on the one hand, and anonymous, upstart individuals on the other.

This is best demonstrated by how their respective courses and organisations are run. Platforms like edX and Coursera have traditional course structures, with dedicated tutors teaching subjects, which, in some cases, provide certified accreditation upon completion. Meanwhile, the University of Reddit allows any user to apply and run their own subject in their area of expertise – all under their anonymous e-handle.

In spite of the nominal populism and inclusivity of these digital academies, their enduring viability remains uncertain. As an economic agent, universities act as a powerful filter for prospective employers. Such a service is built primarily upon long-standing reputations and relationships. Moreover, MOOCs offered by elite universities such as Harvard offer concurrent challenges to academic integrity. As a global export, the institutional prestige of a crimson-coloured online course has the potential to quash scholastic diversity. It could result in the mass production of “the same stuff,” Stilwell tells me, “an orthodox, standardised product.” ‘Communicative’, ‘collaborative’ and ‘participative’ are all laudatory buzzwords used to describe these digital experiences, perhaps in lieu of real learning.

Online enterprises generally take a social constructivist stance on educational structures. As such, virtual learning spaces do not play host to authority, no omniscient and venerable senior academic. The virtual classroom more closely resembles a tutorial than a lecture theatre – all the while accommodating for hundreds of students at a time.

Not all academics, however, are resisting these nascent learning formats.

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Boucher’s office is austere, sparse and unreservedly modern – nothing like Stilwell’s. Gone is the great, thick desk of wood; in its place, a demure and utilitarian, flat round top with skinny metal legs. A thin, stapled booklet rests on a miniature lectern. It’s an arrangement as hip as it is ergonomic.

Her lectures are peppered with videos, music, and interactive periods of question and answer. In addition to keeping abreast of the current literature on immigration, gender and the welfare state, she subscribes to podcasts from the New York Public Library and iTunes U. Perfect harmony between her style and her pedagogy.

“Blended learning,” Boucher tells me, “is better.”

Defined by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, or ALTC, ‘blended learning’ refers to “an integration of both face-to-face and online delivery methods.” A 2011 report from the ALTC suggests online-offline pedagogies pay manifold dividends. By placing course material online, lecturers can save time, money, and reduce their carbon footprint by shunning the printer.

Students, moreover, have greater flexibility with regards to informational engagement, and can access course content off-campus and in their own time. Perhaps most saliently, the report notes consistent improvement in academic achievement: one study quoted found learning “improved… in twenty of thirty projects,” while the remaining ten projects displayed no significant difference.

But despite the manifold advancements during the last forty years, perhaps the alleged radical distinctions between technologically evolved forms of teaching and orthodox education are less radical than we thought. Stilwell himself informs me, “99% of things have remained the same.” Technology, in all its varied and noisy iterations, has not incited revolution. It has, however, fostered reform for an impoverished art form.

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In a piece titled, “Is the lecture dead?” Richard Gunderman writes that a lecture should “show the mind and heart of the lecturer at work” and “engage the minds and hearts of learners.” Regardless of your course or creed, whether you’re speaking to a dozen students in an airless tutorial room, an audience of hundreds in a renovated amphitheatre, or thousands dotted around the world in office cubicles and public libraries and bedrooms and on buses commuting home from work, educators have to crank it to eleven if they really want to make an impact – an impression that may change the trajectory of someone’s life.

In the twilight of our interview, Stilwell relays he’s a long standing fan of rock music. Whether it’s punk, blues, alt, or just the rock n’ roll life of a lecturer, “it’s all about the energy that goes into it.”

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