Teaching and technology


There is an interesting debate about the use of web-based technology and teaching at university. The immediate focus is on ‘recording lectures’ and making the slides and audio recordings available to students on the university intranet. New technology makes this extremely simple. However, the debate raises interesting and important questions. A piece from the Age discussing some of the issues is here. A much more thoughtful piece from Agenda is here. My views are below.

Making audio recordings of lectures available to students is nothing new. I was doing it in Introductory Microeconomics over a decade ago and I was by no means the first. The students had the slides before class (why waste time in class copying down overheads?) and the audio was up after the first class and before the first repeat. So my bias is revealed. I think additional materials such as audio recordings are generally good for students and the lecturer. But there are good arguments on the other side. So let me start by my summary of the ‘negative’ case.

  • Web materials are a substitute for lectures and reduce lecture attendance. We know that an individual student’s lecture attendance is related that student’s performance in the course so ‘discouraging’ students from attending lectures lowers their learning outcome. The ‘better’ students are more likely to find web based materials an adequate substitute for lectures so the classroom mix changes to more of the poorer performing students. The absence of the top-end of students lowers the classroom experience for all making the entire educational outcome worse. Lecturers also alter their lectures to accomodate the changed mix of students which may lead to a ‘dumbing down’ of lectures and of the course overall. This negative cycle is exacerbated by student’s ‘satisficing’. In other words, it is the University prestige that matters for a student, not their personal grades, so good students have an incentive to use web resources rather than attend lectures as this allows them to pass at minimal personal cost, and they only care about a ‘pass’ not a higher grade.

Now, this is my summary of the negative case. So I am sure those who support the negative case will say I have misstated the case. I have tried to be fair – and have already noted my bias.

There is a reasonable amount of truth in the ‘negative’ case. And it does suggest that if all a lecturer does is take audio recordings of lectures and put them on the intranet then this may lower, not raise, educational outcomes. However, even this is not obvious. After all, for some students, audio recordings are a complement to lectures and improve performance. Students who have English as a second language probably fall into the latter camp. In my experience, they attend lectures then go and listen to the audio as well. So for those students, even simple audio recordings probably improve educational outcomes.

However, the real limitation of the negative case is that it assumes that the lecturer does not adapt positively to the web tools available to them. For example, simply putting overheads up on the intranet can free a range of classroom time. Students do not waste class time copying overheads and can actually listen to the lecturer. When I taught second year Microeconomics, I used the ‘extra’ time to run simple ‘choice’ games in class. The students generally enjoyed these and they ‘divided’ the lecture to allow for concentration lapses (most people do not seem to be able to concentrate for more than 20 minutes so in a 50 minute class there should be at least two deliberate ‘diversions’ to allow students to refocus and reconnect). And, they meant that the audio recording was a poorer substitute for the class. So only the students who believed the audio was a complement (or really just couldn’t make the class) were likely to use it. Accessing the audio did not make up for a skipped class.

Put simply, even simple recorded lectures provide the lecturer with an extra input to the production of ‘student learning outcomes’. If the lecturer uses the extra input wisely then the learning output should be improved.

Of course, discussing ‘audio recordings of lectures’ is a bit like discussing the ‘horse and cart’ at a formulae one race. There are a lot we can do other than record lectures to improve the student experience and to create multiple inputs for student learning. A simple example – rather than record the lecture, spend some time on a shortened podcast that explains the overheads and is a complement to the lecture. A Monash marketing lecturer pointed this out to me recently – it makes a lot more educational sense than just recording a lecture and doesn’t take a lot of time. We can also use vodcasts (at least one of the Monash econometrics lecturers does this). We can use internet material (e.g. EconTalk podcasts or even blogs!). Indeed, we can really embrace new technology and teach using Problem Based Learning in smart classrooms (as we do at Monash Peninsula in the B.Bus – probably the best business learning environment available in Australia).

The real problem I have with the ‘record lectures’ debate is that it is – well – so last century. When every student with a mobile phone can give real time feedback in class (and this occurs in some Monash classes) we should have moved on past ‘recording lectures’. The real issue of technology facing universities is how to embrace technology so that it changes what students do inside and outside class – so it challenges them and inspires them to learn the material. This debate should make the question of recording lectures redundant – because the traditional lecture should be redundant.

But, we are not there yet. My Faculty Education Committee (FEC) is about to discuss the audio recording of lectures. This is, of course, my fault. So what is my submission to the FEC?

Well – I think that lecturers should, at a minimum, audio record lectures, but if they have a ‘better idea’ such as a specialised podcast then that is even better and can supersede the audio recording.

What about the negative case above?

Well, I am an economist and I think the negative externalities are minimal and can be reduced by lecturers thinking a bit more creatively about what and how they teach. Students who want to skip class have always done so – and borrowed a mate’s notes. Yes, recordings make it easier – but I have trouble saying that we – the almighty lecturers – know what is best for students and should restrict student choice in the interest of those same students. That is, after all, the first step on Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.



2 Responses to "Teaching and technology"
  1. The argument that recordings might cause a drop in attendance is completely spurious. As a recent ANU Masters student (part-time) I benefited greatly from recordings when I had to miss a class, and even more when it came to revision. Any student who genuinely wants good marks will get to as many lectures as they can. As you note, students who want to skip will skip in any event, but the availability of recordings will minimise the damage to outcomes of the slackers as well as maximise the outcomes for part-timers, and indeed of all students during revision.

  2. Clay Christensen’s (2008) Disrupting Class applies his disruptive innovation theory to education. Subtitled: how disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns, he suggests there is far to go in implementing technology into learning.  Unimelb ERC 371.3 CHRI

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