Monday, March 26, 2007

Education - bad theatre

Closer to theatre than any other medium
Education and training is closer to theatre than any other medium, as it is largely delivered ‘live’ and not recorded. It is ‘staged’ and mostly not interrupted. We do, after all, call them lecture 'theatres'.

We know that the mind struggles with long presentations and that most of it will be forgotten, and that cognitive overload or inattention will prevent the acquisition of knowledge delivered in this fashion. The learner is cheated out of pausing or rewinding if a point is missed, or simply to rethink and reinforce the learning. So why is such a stupid model so prevalent?

Millions delivered, few recorded
Every day vast numbers of lectures and talks are given and only a very few recorded. Imagine a novelist, journalist or filmmaker who only delivered his/her work once, live, and refused to have it recorded and distributed. Education plays this 'once only' game on an unimaginable scale. It’s obvious that this is true, less obvious as to why it happens. Why is it so rarely recorded?

Why can't we see it twice or more?
Why doesn’t the learner have the simple ability to replay the talk/lecture/teaching experience? It’s not ‘intellectual copyright’, as the majority of these lectures/talks get culled from other sources and few have any resale value. It’s not because it’s difficult or expensive. Recording as audio or video is dirt cheap. It’s not because it’s against the rules. It's simply not done. The whole system is moulded to the needs of the teacher, not the learner.

This leaves only institutional sloth or fear. Is education simply stuck in a world where technology doesn’t matter? As there's no real sense in which one fails, does the system just trundle on? Can it only think in terms of theatre?

Or do they fear the fact that they may be found out? That it's all an act.


Anonymous said...


LIVE by what you PREACH! I DO NOT, and I repeat - DO NOT - want to see you ever again giving another talk or keynote address without recording it and providing it for future reference.

If you don't, I'll simply bugger off at the start as it'll be a waste of time to me... in the long run, Donald, in the long run. What is it, 5% retention? Anyway, must go as I've already forgotten the point of this posting...

Bell-Hooded Night Stalker

Bishop Hill said...

This is all part of the wider personalisation of learning debate isn't it? Different people get stuck at different points in a lecture, so it would seem obvious that the ability to watch the lecture again is a necessity.

Then again, why would you want to watch (on video or in the flesh)a second or third rate lecturer at your own University of East Cheam (or whereever)when you can go and watch the top guy from MIT on the open courseware initiative?

And if everyone is watching the MIT guy, how is the second-rater in East Cheam going to make a living?

I don't think you are right that there is no monetisable value to this kind of material though. It just needs to be done in the right way.

Donald Clark said...

I do practice what I preach and almost every talk I have given over the last two years has been recorded.

It's odd having an anonymous blog stalker!

Donald Clark said...

You may not be a Bishop and your name ain't Hill but your right about the guy from East Cheam - there's nothing in it for us or him.

Anonymous said...

Donald, not connected to your post but what is your opinion of the 'mantle of the expert' system of education?

Anonymous said...


Interesting reading you comments on this blog. I work for a company that is looking at investing in the e-learning space around Europe. We are trying to enhance our understanding of the sector. I'd be very interested in having a chat about your experiences in the sector. Let me know if you are interested, and if so, how to contact you. Thanks.


Sophie P said...

I support this argument fully! Coming from the so called 'net generation' (I’m only 23) I am now an e-learning officer within a FE/HE institution and have been trying to get podcasting to take off. As a student I used e-learning resources and the net throughout my education and socially (sometimes I used them for both at the same time, which I why I feel social networking applications should not be restricted in institutions, but that is another argument for another day!) and find the resistance I have come up against quite surprising. Lecturers have given all sorts of reasons such as:

Students won’t attend the lectures they’ll just download the podcast,
I’m not loud enough.
My students won’t understand the technology/I don’t understand the technology.
What stops students downloading it and giving it to friends or putting it on itunes/You Tube? Why would they need to come to college if they could get if off there?

The last one is usually the most common and everyone form lecturing staff to senior management like to bring that argument up. My response to the last one is usually:

“That would brilliant!” If your students are so impressed by the lectures you give that they feel the need to pass it on to a friend, or publish it to the world then you should be proud of yourself and the fact that you have managed to engage what many people refer to as the disengaged generation.

One other note might be a recent article in the THES ( about a philosophy lecturer at the University of Glasgow who recorded her lectures and put them on itunes. The recording shot to the top of the itunes education chart and the number of students taking the course trebled!

Just proof that if you do it well everyone will want to listen in!!!

Sophie (the net generation girl at the AOC/NILTA conference)

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Sophie - this debate needs to happen, and laying out the arguments, as you have, is healthy and necessary.

Attending lectures is not a necessary condition for learning (especially if they contain no audience participation and most don't). Even when they do, subsequent questions are probably best posted online.

Anyone who has attended college or university knows that student attendance at lectures is poor. Students quickly suss the idea that attendance is not a necessary condition for learning as many of the lectures are poorly delivered.

Recording lectures would force teachers to improve their game, improve access to learning by students, improve the effectiveness of the lectures and save us all a lot of time and money.

I still think that fear is the root problem. Fear that they'll be seen as poor teachers. However, as Sophie says, the good teachers would shine in this environment. And what's so different about electronic access to papers, books etc, as opposed to audio or video files? They love it when they're published in print, so why not in other media?

A stronger and more controversial argument is to use the best lectures from the best teachers, even if they lie outside of the organisation (the East Cheam argument).

Thanks Sophie - the lesson I've learnt, after meeting you, is that we should be ASKING students what they want. Let's put it to the vote. Do you want your lectures recorded - YES or NO?

Donald Clark said...

Mark - call me and leave your number/email address on 07804751789.

Mark Frank said...

I agree it is good idea but there is a danger as well - I have been there many times.

If you just stick a camera in front of a theatrical performance you get a crap video - even if the performance is brilliant. Something similar applies to education. It is probably worth making a dumb recording of most lectures, simply because the lectures are so poor in the first place you can't make them any worse. If it is boring and one-way with nothing really happening then at least you can skip through to the information you need. But education and theatre don't have to be like that. If you want to capture a good live class and get close to the full value then you have to take the trouble to record it properly, decent sound, a camera operator who knows what they are doing and can take in the audience as well as the lecturer, some way of making the visual aids visible. Even then it will still be second best.

Note to the other Mark - I expect you already realise this but just in case you don't - if you are thinking about virtual classroom understand that is a completely different thing from a real classroom. You have to design virtual classroom events from scratch.

Andy Tedd said...

the only thing more boring than a lecture is podcast of a lecture

Donald Clark said...

Andy has a point. Astonishing though it may be, having aired this argument many times (that all lecures should be recorded), the commonest reaction is that lectures are not recorded because they're boring.

Is there any other area of human endeavour that would deny a move towards efficiency just because the basic product is so poor that it isn't worth it?

We seem to accept the fact that we bore learners and in denying them the opportunity to skip, rewind or pause, we treat them with contempt.

The 'blended learning' argument could be strengthened if we simply insisted that 'stand-up tragedy' always be recoded for reuse. Instead it has become a 'consevation society' for old methods.

Andy Tedd said...

The podcast argument is compelling because it is so achingly hip. People make a podcast of something boring because they somehow think Johnanthon Ive's magic will rub off on it - it wont.

If you are going to be podcasting learning material, think in terms of what your competition is - a pop song or maybe the 8.10 interview on Today. This sets a sensibly upper time limit, and perhaps gives you a sense of the kind of level of controversy, opinion and timeliness and talent you will need to stop people switching back to their all-time favourite playlist. Maybe, gasp, even think about putting some music on there...

But ultimately in choosing to make a podcast, you are sacrificing genuine interaction for convenience. There are times when it may be appropriate to do this - but consider it carefully first.

Andy Tedd said...

I should just make it clear that I am comparing a podcast of a lecture to a well-designed piece of interactive learning, however delivered, in the above post.

My original comment was aimed at people who think making a podcast of a bad lecture somehow makes it cool.

Donald's comment that at least podcasting it, makes it easier to ignore is spot on.

Michelle Gallen said...

Isn't a lecture delivered to a 'theatre' full of people just really cheap and dirty teaching? Didn’t it evolve millennia ago when we had no technology and there was no better way of spreading a message to a lot of people other than to stand in a theatre/field/market place and shout at them? The major evolution in modern lectures seems to be the use of microphones (yes we can hear you at the back) and PowerPoint presentations. Colleges have a great way of protecting traditions…but are they protecting the tradition of the lecture at the expense of the learner?

When I went to college, the small tutorials I attended (where we had no more than 7 students per tutor) were amazing. You had to prepare before you went, you had to remain engaged while you were in the small shared space, and you couldn't fake understanding...

The next best educational experience was small lectures, of between 25-40 students per tutor. I really enjoyed these as I'm fairly outgoing and have good concentration skills. But on a bad day (hangover) I knew it was possible to disengage from the learning and just hide behind other students.

The least effective learning I had was in large lectures of 100+ students. Unless the lecturer was legendary and really a fantastic performer, the lecture really was cheap, dirty learning fired out at as many people as possible.

I agree with the posts above, that instead of recording poor-quality lectures, we should be designing lectures that are just for podcast. That speak to one person, instead of a sea of bored faces. The investment of creating something that is actually designed for the technology of podcast will be much more effective than capturing the least effective learning model I've encountered.

The podcast could be linked to a discussion forum, where the lecturer can answer questions during a session following a 'live' broadcast, and then the lecturer can come back and respond to other questions in the following weeks.

But I guess that a lecturer who is perfectly happy giving a dull lecture to a 200 students on a grey Monday morning in East Cheam will not be happy that this lacklustre performance is captured on video, and can be analysed not just by students, but by funders, rivals, colleagues etc...let's face it, it takes entire teams of people to get a newsreader ready to present the news to the nation...

And that uncovers a huge problem with lecture podcasts: lecturers are not hired for their presenting skills - they're hired for their brains. It's a great combination if the clever lecturer is also a great presenter, but it's rare. Perhaps it's time for a new model of learning presentation...the lecturer could team up with a presentation specialist, who can help them present the material at its best advantage...or even (why not?) present the material for the lecturer...

Some learning videos to check out:

The most popular lecture on youtube is Ken Miller on Intelligent Design with 107,145 views. But this isn't just a straight-forward podcast of a lecturer talking. Check out the use of graphics which kept me engaged and entertained as well as Ken's great presenting style.

Seth Godin's Google podcast (thanks Donald for the link!) is watchable and's had 210,000 viewers. Godin is also a great presenter.

And check out Web 2.0 The Machine is Us/ing Us - a good example of a learning video (currently viewed by over 2,000,000 many lecturers achieve those sort of viewing figures?) - that seems to just have the lecturer's hand on view for part of the video...