Monday, October 19, 2009

Universities - recorded lectures better than live

Universities, in their current guise, have become closed, inward-looking, traditional, elitist institutions. Shut for much of the year, empty buildings, three lectures a week, poor teaching – the current financial squeeze will hopefully force us to re-examine the model.

Imagine a world in which some universities simply opened their doors to learners, even offering courses for free. There are signs that such a paradigm shift may be happening on the web. Suddenly a huge amount of good content is available on the web, for free, as some of the biggest brands on the web act as conduits for higher education content, with hefty foundation grants paying the bill.

YouTube EDU

Simple enough, video lectures with ratings and details of number of downloads, from over 320 Universities such as; Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford,, and so on. Cambridge, Coventry, Edinburgh, Leeds, Nottingham, OU, The top lecture has received 10.5 million views! But even physics lectures are beating the 350,000 mark. Compare this with the once a year, lecture from a typical living academic – let’s say 100 students once a year for 15 years (and that’s really pushing it). You’re effectively extending the life of a good physics lecturer by thousand of years!

YouTube lectures can be public or private, structured as playlists embed on your site or show on a mobile phone. YouTube Insight gives you loads of useful stats on; views, referrals, gender, age, geography.

iTunes U

Like YouTube EDU, iTunes U is all free content, currently at 200,00 audio and video items, from major Universities. You can download all the tracks on a specific topic or just one. You can also subscribe to receive new stuff automatically. Top downloads – Intensive English, Introduction to Mac OS, Building a Business, beginners’ French etc. One distinct advantage is that you can play audio or video on your iPod, iTouch, iPhone, MP3 player, Mac or PC. iTunes U Reports give you lots of stuff on downloads, unique users and so on.

Open Learn

Open Learn is the OUs Moodle based system is much more sophisticated on support for learners with its learning tools, knowledge maps, shared activities and activity reports. All you need do is register with a personal profile. The content and forums are then available for group discussions, you can do the self-assessment, where you answer questions, then compare your answers with model answers. You can rate and review units, create a learning journal and use Learning Space to organise your study. Pretty impressive.


That guy Walter Lewin, physics lecturer, is at the top of the downloaded courses with his Physics 1 Classical Mechanics lecture with its subtitles/transcript, lecture notes, assignments/solutions and exams/solutions. More of him later.

MITOpenCourseware has an annual running cost of $3.6 million (10% lower than last year) they’re constantly lowering their cost base. Over 1900 courses, some translated, at both undergraduate and graduate level, this is an astonishingly rich resource of free lecture notes, videos and exams from MITs actual courses. There’s translations in Chinese, Thai and Persian. Zipped downloads and lots of user controls coming

The stats are astounding 40 million visits by 31 million people from almost every country in the world. The majority view this stuff for personal learning 62%. Overall the breakdown is 49% self-learners, 32% students, 16% educators.

University of the People

The ‘free’University , yes ‘free’. Just started this year but puts forward a model that may be ideal for the developing world (see my previous post).


A growing resource of ‘Open books for an open world’ are available with the usual wiki functionality of discussion, source and history for each book. There’s also print-ready and PDF books available.

Project Gutenberg

At 2.5 million downloads per month, Project Gutenberg is starting to motor. What’s interesting is the eclectic nature of the downloads. The top ten contains fiction such as Alice in Wonderland, Pride and Prejudice, but also a science book, the Kama Sutra and a book on the history of Furniture. They also have their famous ‘Distributed Proofreading’ system, where volunteers proofread e-books, a page a day.


The greatest single, searchable store of knowledge on the planet and growing still. It’s a miracle of the web, and I’d personally give Jimmy Wales the Nobel Prize for knowledge dissemination. Who doesn’t use this thing? It’s wonderful beyond belief. Who cares if a few errors are noted, they’re soon fixed. It quite simply the greatest knowledge sharing show on earth.

Open Education

OER (Open Education Resources) is a rapidly growing movement with the not-for-profit OER Foundation launched last month on the back of a $200,000 grant from the Hewlett Foundation and support from the Learning4Content project.

The Cape Town Open Education Declaration is up and running, a sort of manifesto for future development. The Opencast Community site has a wealth of information on podcasting in Higher Education. The Matterhorn project is of real interest with $1.3 million from the Mellon and Hewlitt Foundations to develop software that will schedule, capture, encode and deliver audio and video content to the likes of YouTube EDU and iTunes U. Should be ready by summer 2010. WkiEducator is one of many communities operating in the field, where you can join, and create free content. They promise to ‘turn the digital divide into digital dividends’.


So how is all of this funded? Well, there’s a number of sources; foundations, most notably, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, institutions themselves, free contributions, donations and payment. The foundation money (mostly from private sector benefactors) tends to seed the initiative, which then gains momentum either in a University or community. The real progress comes when you get a slingshot effect from altruistic contributors (as in Wikipedia).

Recorded lectures – better learning?

Are Youtube video lectures better than the real thing? I think the evidence is in the video themselves. In the cutaways to the audience you see some students attention wander and always towards another student. You don’t have that distraction in your own company. Lewin understands and explains at the start of his lecture series, that lectures complement other forms of study. He is NOT lecturing the book. It’s about demonstrating physics, selling physics, exciting people about physics. It’s about motivation, as well as understanding.

What I love about Walter Lewin is his style – he walks around, he shouts, he gesticulates, he demonstrates, he stands up on his desk, gets students up, he quips – he’s a livewire. He does the very opposite of playing that ‘I’m an academic and have to be serious, grave and dull’ routine.

Case study 1: University of Texas - Austin

Major findings included:

  • Attendance was not significantly affected by webcasts, even given the limited degree to which some students repeatedly substituted webcasts for attending class.
  • Students perceived webasts to be a helpful tool for learning, but the impact of webcasts on their performance in terms of grades and test scores is not clear.
  • Students used webcasts for learning benefits (e.g., reviewing course content) and psychological benefits (e.g., anxiety reduction, course satisfaction).
  • A majority of students watched webcasts at least once, typically 1-7 times, before exams or 1-3 times a month, at night from home through high-speed connections.
  • Most students watched the entire lecture and typically they both listened to the lecture and watched videos and slides.
  • Female students and students who cared about their course grades perceived webcasts as more beneficial than did male students or those who did not care about their grades respectively. Also, those with certain difficulties non-native speakers of English, students with a learning disability, and students with difficulty in understanding the professor’s speech) did not report benefits from webcasts, contrary to our expectations.
  • Students rated most current and future webcast interface features as important, in particular stop/rewind (current feature), scan (current feature), manipulating the slides or video window (current feature), and better quality or full screen animation/video (future feature).
  • Students and instructors were generally satisfied with webcasts’ quality and did not experience many technical problems. Many problems they did report can be resolved through training of instructors, students, and camera operators.
  • Both students and instructors in general indicated that webcasts were good supplemental learning resources but not a substitute for attending class.

Case Study 2: University of Michigan - Flint

The results presented here now further extend the benefits of the cyber classroom by demonstrating a significant improvement in student outcomes as assessed by final grades with a nearly half grade improvement in mean grades, a 56% drop in failing grades, and a 36% increase in grades B+ and above.

Case study 3: ICTP Trieste

Another comes from ICTP in Trieste, who have been using recorded lectures for some time. Assessed learning improves, students watch 2 hours per night after live daytime lectures and even watch lectures from other courses they’re not taking.

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Blogger Dick Moore said...

Love it Donald, I hear this stuff criticised along the lines of "So what, the Open University did this stuff on TV in the 1970's" Well NO with modern personal playback, auto generation of transcript able to link to the exact point in the video, the ability to hyper-link to other related material and community fora, this is a very rich experience.

Key question for me is will it produce more/better qualified graduates?

7:49 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Already happening Dick - results improving among students who use this stuff.

9:55 PM  
Blogger marvin said...

I've been using Wikipedia for reference on a certain topic. Plus, lots of elearning tools have been available to enhance teaching and learning skills.

12:23 AM  
Anonymous Building Materials Supplies said...

Universities - recorded lectures better than live

Thanks for sharing

6:52 AM  
Blogger Carla Arena said...

Wow, excellent resources compiled in an easy way to share with educators. Thanks, Donald!

4:33 PM  
Blogger James Neill said...

Thanks for this article, I've tweeted and delicious bookmarked it #openacademia

I was interested you mentioned Wikipedia and Wikibooks. Please also have a look at the other Wikimedia Foundation Sister Projects, in particular Wikiversity.

10:31 PM  
Blogger Rob Alton said...

Then again there is this unfortunately:

4:50 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Fascinating article. The arguments put forward by the 15 academics do seem like the defence of the indefensible. For them, it's all about gatekeeping, status and power, not the efficiency of learning.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Rob Alton said...

Indeed. As one academic from a top 3 world university said to me: "Dear boy, students don't come here to sit in front of a computer - they come here to learn from me."

4:47 PM  
Anonymous Anders Mikkelsen said...

Thank you so much for this article. I had a course at the IT university in Copenhagen this spring where the teacher made files with his lectures and powerpoints. Great stuff for the students and also for people from outside the university.
Scandinavian universities should use the possibilities of technology instead of fighting it.

9:59 AM  

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