The Limits of the Lecture, or What I Learned from Teaching Online

Molly Worthen’s “Lecture Me. Really” article in the NY Times sparked some valuable conversation this week. I won’t recap that whole thing, but if you missed it, Worthen offered an extended critique of active learning techniques in the classroom. Raging against the trend of de-emphasizing “sage on the stage” lectures, Worthen claims that quality lectures which present arguments and model critical thinking are optimal ways of teaching students, especially when this instruction is accompanied by meta-conversations about note taking and attention. I just presented her thesis in a rather favorable light as most educators would maintain the value of strategic, thoughtful lectures to enhance student learning. When you read her piece itself though, the problems are many and Josh Eyler does a comprehensive job of breaking them down here:

My intervention ties the debate here to a conversation I engaged in this week when a colleague asked me about my experience in online teaching. I taught blended and online classes for years, to the point where I became a trainer in pedagogy at my university for faculty and staff new to teaching online. While doing that work, I encountered numerous people who were highly skeptical about the value of online learning. I truly get that. First (as my colleague pointed out), the online enterprise has been stained by the impression that colleges are using these classes as a factory-style money grab to rack tuition dollars. More to pedagogy, there are concerns that online learning cannot replicate a classroom experience full of camaraderie and mentorship. If the course experience is inferior then students are the worse for it. I won’t perform the whole online vs. F2F debate, but I did become a believer in the concept of online classes. In a nutshell, there’s bad online classes and good online classes, just like face-to-face classrooms. Once you accept that online classes are “different” (not inferior) and plan for the difference, we’re off and teaching.

What I found is that (whether they admitted it or not) many instructors’ hesitation about online classes came more from what they wanted out of the experience of teaching than it did reactions to student learning. When Worthen talks about how she will “pace around, wave my arms, and call out questions to which I expect an answer,” I sense that this performance is incredibly valuable and exciting to her. She quotes another lecturer who says, “when I lecture, there’s a certain charisma. This stuff matters to me — it saved my life.” In response, it makes me want to ask “Who is this lecturing benefiting most – the professor or the students?”

As a young classroom instructor, I firmly believed that what separated me from weaker grad teachers was my comfort, experience, and insights. I could work a room, I could perform, I didn’t get nervous, I was the master of my classroom space. I was prepared and could construct a narrative from my notes. This made me successful, yes? After all, even my evaluations were high! It was only through teaching online and seeing those students learn just as much, watch them actively interrogate issues, think independently, that I realized that most of what I prided myself on had very little to do with student learning. Sure, I loved performing as an instructor and students responded to the fact that I was clearly invested, but were they learning critical skills to help them think by watching me up there?   Not as confident on that one. My charisma was not at the heart of student learning after all. Ego down.

This was challenging to accept as a graduate student. I can’t imagine what it’s like if you’re a tenured professor with years of lecturing experience, accustomed to a large of amount of intellectual deference and respect for your expertise. Abandoning the mentality that your most important job is to inspire students with the transcendence of your magnetism must be sincerely difficult.  Everyone might want to believe that he or she is Edward James Olmos, or Mr. Holland, or in a music video with Coolio, but the reality is that key parts of our job are to create opportunities for students to learn, build avenues to make connections, and present them with challenges to navigate. Basically, the tenants of active learning.

Like Josh Eyler and every reasonable academic admits, there is still a place for the lecture in academia. No babies will be exiting with the bathwater.  However (as he links extensively), there is evidence that this shouldn’t be the standard backbone of our courses. Worthen’s essay should be interrogated with a question I once had to ask myself: Is a passion for lecturing built on what excites the instructor or it is driven by what is best for student learning?

2 thoughts on “The Limits of the Lecture, or What I Learned from Teaching Online”

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful engagement with my post! I really like how you bring your experience with online teaching into the conversation, and I think the question you ask at the end of the piece is indeed a very important one.

    1. Thanks Josh! It”s great to have you stumble onto my blog.

      I don”t think of myself as a strong “anti-lecture” person, but the “Lecture Me!” article and your critique crystallized for me the clear limitations and biases of doubling-down on the lecture as the standard-bearer of successful instruction. It really is instructor-centered in seductive ways that don”t always serve students.

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