Friday, April 18, 2014

20 reasons why Stanford Prof thinks video lectures self-evidently better

The lecture video delivers me in a way the student has complete control over, making it self-evidently better.” Says Stanford’s Professor of Mathematics Keith Devlin. He’s a MOOC veteran, who delivers Stanford’s ‘Introduction to Mathematical Thinking’ on Coursera. We have to understand is why this is so. What makes a recorded lecture ‘self-evidently better’. 

This was confirmed by a friend of mine who went back to do a Masters Degree at the LSE and found that he's questioning going to lectures at all, as the recorded versions are better. He can take detailed notes, reflect more and generally watches most of them at x 1.25 speed. His argument is that recorded lectures are therefore better than live lectures. When I presented these and the following arguments at a technology in Higher Education conference back in the day, I had people walk out on me.... still one of my proudest moneys as a speaker, and at 28,000 views the YouTube version proved my point. Quite apart from the many pedagogic arguments about lectures full stop - one that they are too long (actually arbitrarily long, as they're only an hour because the Sumerians had a base-6 number system), and passive, there are plenty of other arguments for recorded lectures.

So what are the advantages of recorded lectures?

1. Available 24/7
2. Rewind if your attention drops
3. Rewind if you didn’t understand
4. Rewind if English is your second language
5. Pause if you want to look something up
6. Access to vast online resources on same device 
7. Pause to take good notes 
8. Fast forward (even 1.25 speed), if known or irrelevant 
9. Watch several times for increased retention
10. Watch when in right attentive state for learning
11. Watch if you have been ill
12. Watch for revision as exam approaches
13. Not wasting time travelling to and from lecture
14. Academic can focus on tutoring and feedback
15. Multiple uses in courses, MOOCs etc.
16. Data gathered on who, what, when watched
17. Can be subtitled for the deaf
18. Can be translated and subtitled
19. Can be delivered online at almost no cost

20. Can be viewed on many devices
Devlin’s refreshingly honest and revealing article on teaching online goes on to explain that there are deeper pedagogic advantages.

Better than regular classes
Devlin thinks that students “get a version of that close, one-on-one instruction that they absolutely do not get in a regular class of any size”. He notes that many students feel intimidated in speaking back to academics as they have “insufficient confidence” and thinks that “there is good reason to believe that human connection through social media may be enough to have whatever effect is provided by the real thing”. In truth, he thinks that requested feedback could be provided, where necessary, and, in fact “shy students can perform much better in an online environment”.

Closer connection
As Devlin explains, counter-intuitively, “The fact is, a student taking my MOOC can make a closer connection with me than if they were in a class of more than 25 or so students, and certainly more than in a class of 250.”  He reminds us of a fact often ignored in the debate, that “in a large class, the student is not going to get my individual attention, so there is no loss there in learning in a MOOC, so a MOOC seems to offer more of me than a student would get in a regular, large class”.

Interestingly, Devlin designed the course and the style of presentation around this sense of intimacy. “I set out to create that same sense of the student sitting alongside me, one-on-one. If you can pull it off, it’s powerful. In particular, if you can create that feeling of intimate human connection, the student will overlook a lot of imperfections and problems.”

Time and time again (not always) I have experienced, and heard from other MOOCers, about the intimacy of the academic teaching in MOOCs. I first came across it in the Thrun AI course and for me it is the hallmark of a good course. Devlin is a reflective teacher, who waited until he had gone through the experience of teaching a MOOC before making these observations. His full article can be found here.


Rob said...

Interesting, and gives the lie to the complaints that MOOCs are soulless. By the way, did you know that FeedBurner seems to have stopped your RSS feed? I read your blog via Net News Wire, and wondered why I had nothing new from you this year. According to FeedBurner, your last post was in December 2013.

Brian Mulligan said...

Thanks for this. I can use this to argue for recorded short lectures in my institution.

(Also: I don't use RSS feeds and find it hard to keep up with blogs that don't have email subscription - I'm just very old-fashioned - any chance of that?)

Brendon Ross said...

I couldn't agree more with what he has to say. I am currently a student and have taken a handful of online courses. I really enjoyed one of them in particular because of such video lectures. If I ever didn't quite understand what the prof had said I could just rewind it, something I am not able to do in the classroom with out Star Trek-esque gadgets.

Thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

I've just read your similar article in the Guardian. There are a lot of problems with your argument. The biggest is that it would change the economy of teaching within the institution. Given that university managers, rather than teaching staff, are the ones setting the course of new developments, this is worrying. MOOCs and recorded lectures may well lead to attacks on jobs and casualisation. It could well exacerbate problems that already exist, e.g. the developing 'star system' of celebrity academics, or the increasing disparity between teaching staff and researchers. This is why UCU and most academic staff don't like your 'Plan B' (

I would also point out that many of your objections to face-to-face lectures are spurious. For a start, most institutions use different types of teaching in complementary ways. E.g. lectures are also complimented with lecture handouts, with slides made available online, with key questions and key resources identified in a course handbook, with seminars conducted in smaller groups, which go over the key topics, &c &c. I don't really recognise the straw-man you construct. Besides this, you don't note the positives offered by face-to-face lectures over recorded lectures. In fact, some of your 'objections' are, arguably, positives. What you call the 'tyranny' of time and place others would call 'structure'. From my own learning and teaching experience, I would say that undergraduates tend to benefit from the ways in which face-to-face lectures help structure their working week, and the academic year more broadly. Having left the extremely structured environment of school, they benefit from this real contact with lecturers, whose presence reassures them that they're in the right time and place - not just floating in a void of tangled information pumped out from glaring screens.

On this note, we could also think about the place of the lecture and the student within an 'economy of stimuli'. How does a lecture compete for a student's attention with youtube, facebook, buzzfeed, computer games, and so on? Partly it competes because it offers something very different: the singularity of a real world event, with all the authority and prestige that accrues from that. But, if a lecture gives up that advantage to become yet more (boring, badly produced) digital noise and LCD glare, how will it compete? When it just another tab on your browser, to be recalled whenever, why bother?

I could go on. One way or another, your 'Plan B' stinks. Roll on Plan C.

Donald Clark said...

I find your tone a bit smug, especially the last comment - but hey ho - there was me thinking HE was about objective discussion and debate. What do I know?
It would indeed change the economy within the institution - that's the point. Charging young people tens of thousands for these so called 'learning experiences' lumbering them with debt is precisley the problem. HE has gone through massive expansion and could do with cutting back on costs. Of course UCU and most academic staff don;t like my ideas - that would be turkeys voting for Christmas but I rather like Turkey and Christmas.
If you don;t really recognise the 'straw man' spek to students. Better still calculate the number of students who give up on lectures and don;t even attend. Why don;t Universities do this? It is basic data.
And on your non sequitur - I'm not arguning for less structure. I'm asking for more. Active learning needs organisation and structure, not boring, over-long lectures. "It’s almost unethical to be lecturing if you have this data,” says Eric Mazur, physicist at Harvard. Check this out - or is research that proves my case also regarded as spurious.

ctl_alt_del.geek said...

In response to W's allegations - I'm trying to see why we would NOT want star lecturers. Let's get the most thought provoking people and leaders in their field to deliver compelling analysis of topic and save our future students from the dysfunctional 3 hour lecture which demands attendance and cheats them of meaningful content by virtue of a pension-awaiting 'I've always done it this way' washed up academic. Let's create a meritocracy of Academic lecturers to enthuse and engage our students.

then use message boards and local resource to provide discussion opportunities, reflection and peer review. The idea that we would have to prematurely retire a number of academics who refuse to address a changing audience seems a positive benefit to education.