Remote Learning Begs the Question: Must Lectures Be So Long?

May 25, 2020

With some schools already announcing they will not reopen normally in the fall, and many others considering their options, educators are hoping to take advantage of the summer to improve on this spring’s sink-or-swim plunge into distance learning. Much of this reflection is likely to take place within the often siloed communities of practice in K-12 and higher education.

One source for insights on how to proceed is the cross-pollination that takes place when educators working in separate spheres learn from one another. Insights that derive from dialog between K-12, higher education, and online-learning providers could well shape instructional practices for the better as students return to school, whether in a classroom or over Zoom.

In my 2014 book “MOOCS Essentials,” I reflected on each aspect of the residential learning process and how developers of massive open online courses were trying to replicate those experiences virtually, or come up with ways to keep students engaged without direct teacher-student interaction. This was followed by a stint helping to create a new graduate school of education that required understanding the job of a K-12 teacher well enough to create a set of teachable and measurable competencies that would undergird a competency-based teacher-education program.

From these experiences, it became clear that every aspect of education could benefit from sharing of experience and expertise across educational sectors.

What’s the Use of Lectures?

For many, the recent leap to remote instruction felt rushed, chaotic and disorganized. Many things did not translate well online. Yet that discomfort also raises opportunities to question prevailing assumptions about how teaching and learning occurs. Let’s start with one of education’s most hallowed traditions: the lecture.

In his 1971 book “What’s the Use of Lectures?,” author Donald Bligh compared the four things teachers claimed students would get from lectures (acquisition of information, promotion of thought, changes in attitude, and development of behavior skills) with what his research showed pupils actually gained: only acquisition of information.

The author’s work did not discount the fact that there are inspirational teachers whose lectures are so compelling they can hold student attention for hours. But Bligh’s point was that because students’ attention spans and memory stamina vary widely, breaking the lecture into smaller increments of no longer than 20-30 minutes was optimal for different age groups he studied.

Any college professor who noticed a dramatic drop-off in attendance and participation in virtual courses that tried to preserve the existing lecture format could benefit from strategies K-12 educators learn in teacher-preparation programs regarding how to structure classroom time.

Unlike professors who typically expect students to conform to college-level norms (such as sitting through an hour-long lecture and at least appear to be attentive), K-12 teachers think of the classroom period as a block of minutes that needs to be carefully structured to maximize the potential for student engagement.

These insights explain why the 50-minute-plus lecture format is more common in high school and college and why, in earlier grades, teachers often break up activities within a classroom period. In addition to taking into account the shorter attention spans for younger learners, less lecturing gives teachers time to focus on aspects of learning other than acquisition of knowledge.

For example, a 50-minute period might begin with a “Do Now,” a brief exercise that introduces to students what they will be learning, followed by short segments that include a mix of lecture, group activity, discussion, or individual work. When developed by experienced teachers, these segments are carefully choreographed to consider not just the content being taught, but the needs of each learner.

Such a structure leverages Bligh’s insight that shorter lectures support the key benefit of lecturing—knowledge transfer—while leaving time for other activities that can support educational goals such as promotion of thought, changes in attitude, and development of behavior skills.

Learning Across Modalities

The benefit of shorter lectures is well understood by developers of online educational materials who have learned that students often click away or otherwise tune out while watching a recorded class. The success of Khan Academy videos (almost all of which are under 10 minutes) served as a template for creating cutting-edge online-learning experiences, including massive open online courses.

Many colleges and universities participating in MOOC projects used the occasion to experiment with different approaches that went beyond the “lecture-capture,” a term for essentially videotaping the professor in the classroom or lecturing to the camera, which still dominates traditional online courses. Shorter lectures quickly replaced hour-long videos of sages performing on the stage as developers experimented with different techniques to make virtual lectures more expansive and intimate.

For example, many courses feature online “field trips” to museums or research centers that include interviews with artists and scientists. Some offer demonstrations that one could not experience in physical environments, such as dangerous experiments or imaging that let students virtually “turn over” fragile artifacts. While teachers working through the current crisis do not have access to production studios (or even the ability to leave their homes, with or without a camera crew), thousands of museums and other institutions have made resources available for teachers to integrate into their online courses.

Instructors have also experimented with lecture formats that did away with podiums and blackboards. For instance, in the popular HarvardX MOOC The Ancient Greek Hero, professor Greg Nagy framed didactic portions of his course as conversations between himself and a handful of graduate students, creating the impression that you were not being lectured to, but instead eavesdropping on intimate discussions. A teacher interested in mixing things up can experiment with formats by simply thinking about where they can point the camera, other than at their own face.

Synthesizing effective methodologies used across educational sectors can offer a roadmap for instructors as they consider what to do with the lecture portion of their courses.

  1. Think of your courses as a set of units and lessons, with each lesson broken into a set of activities organized by time.
  2. Determine how many of those activities require direct instruction versus discussion or some other form of teacher-to-student or student-to-student interaction or activity.
  3. Research the availability of instructional material (such as virtual tours or interviews with experts) that can help students accomplish learning goals that do not involve a teacher talking directly into the camera.
  4. Get creative with the format of your live or recorded lecturing. Conversations, interviews, theatricality (if you are so inclined) are all ways to get the lesson across without being yet another talking head in students’ virtual lives.

“We are all in this together” has become the rallying cry for the current crisis. To get through it, we need to remember that we are united not through suffering, but through what we can learn from and do for one another.


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