Class Lectures As, Well, TV

As out student-created graduate class on 21st Century Learning heads into a  unit on McLuhan, you all might want to check out this recent account of a MIT conference on online learning.  Sadly, I wasn’t able to participate because of my NHC duties, but it sounds like it was a stirring and important conversation.  And many of the findings on how we actually learn confirm the student-created methods of this course.   Good thing we’re turning our course content into a “field guide” that others will be able to learn from!

While I have problems with the conventional structure of many of the courses offered by Coursera and other venues because they replicate the least exciting aspects of classroom teaching (all the things we are trying to disrupt in #Duke21C with a student-driven pedagogy, peer assessment, and active public learning), I am very pleased that this conference highlighted some of the new research on the deficiencies of the lecture as a model.


Previous research suggested that the lecture was very poor for retention, engagement, or applicability but that, in a great (rare, not average but great) lecture, the one thing that lectures do accomplish is a kind of emotional bonding with the experience–or what one might call an “inspirational” affect.   One gripe I have with the online “Sage on the Stage” model is you massively scale all the mediocre parts of lecture-style teaching and then leave out the one part of a (great, again, emphasis on great) face-to-face lecture:  this fact that we humans like to enjoy and be inspired together.   Witness attendance at movies (v. watching at home), sporting events, church, or, indeed, TED talks.

Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard who champions audience-enhanced, peer-directed learning (he sometimes uses clickers and informal learning and group problem solving even in groups of several hundred), gave a paper on current research on just how poor the usual lecture class is for actual learning.  Here’s a link to the story:


And a great summary of his argument, with a PDF to the larger study (and I need to add that I am more skeptical about the physiological measures for TV watching than for a routine classroom lecture–previous research I’ve read suggests that responses to TV can be quite intense; this feels a bit like a set up and a cheap shot that embeds within it contempt for TV watching as a form without distinguishing between the kind of TV watching.  I do not need a censor to tell I am wracked with emotion watching The Wire and terrorized in fear by the one and only episode of Lost that I managed–and full of laughter and appreciation with Louis CK or Modern Family at its best).   Similarly, we have to distinguish between dull lectures and great ones–but even the great ones (better research indicates, done by some of my ethnographer friends, for example, after TED talks) are far better at inspiration than retention, applicability, etc etc.

” One [of the conference themes] was a questioning of the pedagogical efficiency of lectures. During the first panel, “Blended Models of Learning: Bringing Online to On-Campus,” Eric Mazur, a professor of physics at Harvard, cited a study (see PDF) by MIT professor of media arts and sciences Rosalind Picard and her students in which subjects were fitted with wristbands that measured skin conductance as an index of the “arousal associated with emotion, cognition and attention.” Mazur presented a figure from the Picard group’s paper showing wrist-sensor readings for a single MIT student over the course of week. The sensor recorded regular, strong spikes during periods of study, lab work and homework, but the readout flatlined during two activities: attending class and watching TV.”

53 responses to “Class Lectures As, Well, TV

  1. This is interesting and awesome leading into McLuhan week. I’m particularly struck by the idea of the lecture being like TV given that McLuhan considered TV a cool medium. The lecture is too. On wikipedia it says that cool media, specifically television “requires more effort on the part of viewer to determine meaning” and comics “require a high degree of effort to fill in details that the cartoonist may have intended to portray”. It sort of makes us reframe what we mean by passive and active.

    I think that this become even more important when we start talking about having different types of content, from video to text to audio to an ebook! What kind of engagement are we trying to frame? I am tempted to say rather that if we were to try to explore this through McLuhan we would need to try to create a warm space somewhere between hot and cool. I’m not sure I know what that looks like yet, but I hope we get to discuss it in class!

  2. This will be fascinating to discuss, Jade, and great as part of our “field notes” for others teaching and learning about 21st century literacies. McLuhan, of course, didn’t have the Internet on his spectrum from hot to cool media . . . so was “defending” the cool medium of TV at the height of all the hatred being leashed on the form. If he had the Internet on his spectrum, I wonder if TV would be hotter or colder? Pure speculation but so interesting. It’s also interesting to think about the lecture as being “open to interpretation” or just “boring” (i.e. too low a threshold to even engage interpretation). I don’t mean that rhetorically but as a serious question that does not figure in this study but is worth our discussing. My gut from other experiments I’ve seen where people simply photograph and do analysis of postures in crowd photos students in large lectures (including in those lectures where no media are allowed) suggest lectures are more on the “non-engaged” spectrum and less on the “so indeterminate it really engages your intellect” spectrum. It’s going to be a fascinating discussion! If there is time with all we’re doing that night, I’d love to do some think-pair-share so some of the quieter members of the class get to put their own ideas out there for us to discuss together.

    • When the Cool becomes Cold: Failure to Make the College Lecture a Meaningful Space of Engagement?

      Might be a fun place to start.

      As for the internet…
      “It would depend on when he had the internet, the internet in the 90s primarily attached to immobile machines or the internet of now that is mobile and often augments or distracts from the television with its presence” she typed from her laptop while her child playing a video game on the television in her direct line of sight.

      And yes, to 3x5s. I might already have a question in mind for the class. Should I bring some in or are there extras from last time we used them?

  3. A teacher I met at talk I gave to IB teachers in Bangkok last year–Ivan Beeckmans, Digital Learning Coach at the New International School of Thailand–just today sent me the link to this amazing video of a high school where kids spend a semester in an almost entirely student-designed curriculum, without quizzes, grades, or teachers. Breathtaking and inspiring! So not a “cool” medium here!

    You can watch this student-made film about the school here:

    The bottom line is this quote from one of the students: “I think every single person wants to learn about something.” This is a school that both looks at the basics and allows students to pursue their passions—-and fosters collaboration, the students pushing one another, giving constructive criticism, giving praise and support, helping one another find resources, learning how to ask and answer questions together. So inspiring!

    “You’re not only doing it for yourself but for your group mates,” says another student. “I like working with students who are as interested in what they are doing as I’m interested in what I’m doing even though we’re not interested in the same thing.” The link: passion to learn. Yes. Definitely not a “cool” medium.

    Perhaps my favorite moment in the YouTube video of this class is when one student poses a logic question to the others–and the others immediately, without even asking, break into two groups, solve the logic problem in their groups, each using a different method, both coming up with the right answer—without direction.

    This is the right kind of training for a changing world. This is what education should be.

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  4. We’ll make sure to bring 3 x 5s.

    By the way, I just lectured 6000 National Association of Independent Schools teachers, principals, policy makers, leaders. It was in this huge auditorium and there I was, JumboCat, on these great huge JumboTrons. I was the closing moment in a three-day very intense conference, at a very important political leadership change in this history of NAIS, so I worked on my talk for days and days, and tailored it to a lot of reading in NAIS literature and so forth, and I know I delivered it with passion and point and the response was phenomenal. I received every bit as much as I gave. I’m very, very proud of it.

    And yet, and yet . . . . because I’ve read all the research there is (or all I’ve been able to find) on the lecture as a genre and form, I know the main benefit of my talk was inspirational. I structured it to that purpose, layering real content (extensive content actually), but aware that the real “take away” would be, even for those people leaving the room, only about 10-20% memory (retention) of the actual content and concepts, even if, for some, it was a 200% sense of being inspired to a certain action, to institutional change, to classroom experimentation and reform against odds.

    That is very different from teaching young people a skill, a subject matter, content, a topic. The lecture form is great for inspiration, but quite poor for everything else. Mind you, I think inspiration is hugely valuable–or I would not have spent weeks working on the NAIS and other talks I give (on average of one a week, in fact, because I’m an evangel trying to inspire pedagogical, institutional, assessment, and structural changes to how we teach and learn).

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  7. this history of NAIS, so I worked on my talk for days and days, and tailored

  8. I’ve read all the research there is (or all I’ve been able to find) on the lecture as a genre and form, I know the main benefit of my talk was inspirational.

  9. “You’re not only doing it for yourself but for your group mates,” says another student. “I like working with students who are as interested in

  10. a physics professor at Harvard who champions audience-enhanced, peer-directed learning (he sometimes uses clickers and informal learning and group problem solving even in groups of several hundred), gave a paper on current research on just how poor the usual lecture class is for actual learning.

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  14. “You’re not only doing it for yourself but for your group mates,” says another student. “I like working with students who are as interested in

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