Tag Archives: online learning

And We’re Still Lecturing

Forty years ago this month, students in Paris started a movement of protests and strikes. May ’68.

Among French-speakers, the events are remembered as the onset of a cultural revolution of sorts (with both negative and positive connotations). As we reached the 40 year anniversary of those events, some journalists and commentators have looked back at the social changes associated with the Paris student revolts of May, 1968.

The May ’68 movement also had some pedagogical bases. Preparing an online course, these days, I get to think about learning. And to care about students.

As I was yet to be born at the time, May ’68 resonates more for generational reasons than pedagogical ones. But a Montreal journalist who observed some of those events 40 years ago has been talking about what she perceived as irrationality surrounding such issues as abolishing lecture-based courses («cours magistraux»).

This journalist’s reaction and a cursory comparison of the present situation with what I’ve heard of pre-1968 teaching both lead me on a reflection path about learning. Especially in terms of lecturing.

As a social constructivist, I have no passion for “straight lectures.” On occasion, I bemoan the fact that lecturing is (still) the primary teaching mode in many parts of the world. The pedagogical ideas forcefully proposed more than a generation ago are apparently not prevalent in most mainstream educational systems.

What happened?

This is an especially difficult question for an idealist like me. We wish for change. Change happens. Then, some time later, changes have been reversed. Maybe more progressively. But, it seems, inexorably.

Sisyphean. Or, maybe, buddhist.

Is it really the way things work?

Possibly. But I prefer to maintain my idealism.

So… Before I was born, some baby-booming students in Paris revolted against teaching practises. We still talk about it. Nowadays, these teaching practises against which students revolted are apparently quite common in Paris universities. As they are in many other parts of the world. But not exactly everywhere.

Online learning appears more compatible with teaching methods inspired by social constructivism (and constructionism) than with “straight lecturing.” My idealism for alternative learning methods is fed partly by online learning.

Online lectures are possible. Yet the very structure of online communication implies some freedoms in the way lecture attendees approach these “teachings.”

At the very least, online lectures make few requirements in terms of space. Technically, a student could be watching online lectures while laying down on a beach. Beaches sound like a radically different context from the large lecture halls out of which some ’68ers decided to “take to the streets.”

Contrary to classroom lectures, online lectures may allow time-shifting. In some cases, prerecorded lectures (or podcasts) may be paused, rewinded, fastforwarded, etc. Learning for the TiVo generation?

Online lectures also make painfully obvious the problems with straight lecturing. The rigid hierarchy. Students’ relative facelessness. The lack of interactivity. The content focus. All these work well for “rote learning.” But there are other ways to learn.

Not that memorization plays no part in learning or that there is no value in the “retention of [a text’s] core information” (Schaefer 2008: xxi). It’s just that… Many of us perceive learning to be more than brain-stuffing.

As should be obvious from my tone and previous posts, I count myself as one of those who perceive lectures to be too restrictive. Oh, sure, I’ve lectured to large and medium-sized classrooms. In fact, I even enjoy lecturing when I get to do it. And I fully realize that there are many possible approaches to teaching. In fact, my observation is that teaching methods are most effective when they are adapted to a specific situation, not when they follow some set of general principles. In this context, lecturing may work well when “lecturer and lecturees are in sync.” When students and teacher are “on the same page,” lectures can be intellectually stimulating, thought-provoking, challenging, useful. Conversely, alternative teaching methods can have disastrous consequences when they are applied haphazardly by people who were trained with “straight lecturing” in mind. In fact, my perception is that many issues with Quebec’s most recent education reform (the “competency based program” about which Quebec parents have been quite vocal) are associated with the indiscriminate application of constructivist/constructionist principles to all learning contexts in the province. IMHO, a more flexible application of the program coupled with considerate teacher training might have prevented several of the problems which plagued Quebec’s reform.

Unlike ’68ers, I don’t want to abolish lectures. I just hope we can adopt a diversity of methods in diverse contexts.

Back in 1968, my father was a student of Jean Piaget, in Geneva. Many of Piaget’s ideas about learning were quite compatible with what Parisian students were clamoring for.

Beyond the shameless name-dropping, my mentioning Piaget relates to something I perceive as formative. Both in my educational and in my personal lives. My mother had much more of an impact on my life. But my father supplied me with something of the Piaget spirit. And this spirit is found in different places. Including online.

The compatibility between online learning and lecture-less teaching methods seems to be a topic for frequent discussions among eLearning circles including LearnHubNing, and the Moodle community. Not that online technology determines pedagogical methods. But the “fit” of online technology with different approaches to learning and teaching is the stuff constructionist teachers’ dreams are made of.

One dimension of the “fit” is in terms of flexibility. Online, learners may (and are sometimes forced to) empower themselves using personal methods. Not that learners are left to their own devices. But the Internet is big and “wild” enough to encourage survival strategies in learning contexts. Perhaps more than the lecture hall, the online world makes critical thinking vital. And critical thinking may lead to creative and innovative solutions.
Another dimension to the fit, and one which may be more trivial than some EdTech enthusiasts seem to assume, is the “level of interactivity” afforded diverse online tools. You know, the Flash-based or other learning objects which should make learning fun and effective. I personally like the dancing mice a lot. But my impression is that these cool tools require too much effort for their possible learning outcomes. I do, however, have high hopes for the kind of interactivity common to the “social platform” sometimes known (perhaps abusively) as “Web 2.0.” Putting things online is definitely not a panacea for adequate pedagogical practise. And while “School 2.0” is an interesting concept, the buzzwordiness of some of these concepts makes me take pause. But, clearly, some students are using adequate learning strategies through the interactive character of online communication.

As I’ll be teaching online for several weeks, I’ll surely have many other things to say about these learning issues in a pseudo-historical context. In the meantime, I assume that this blogpost may bring me some thoughtful comments. 😉

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Instructors and Open Textbooks

Freeload Press is publishing difficult-to-read textbooks as free, ad-supported downloads.

Interestingly, the Slashdot thread sparked by this news item revolves more around the issue of cost-prohibitive textbooks than around ideological issues surrounding advertisement in publication. Several of the dozens of comments in that thread are quite insightful, including some below the moderators’ radar.

Here’s my own comment on that thread, slightly edited.

My 2¢ as an instructor (cultural anthropology, African studies, linguistic anthropology, ethnomusicology).

Contrary to what some people seem to think, some of us instructors do care about the price of textbooks. Many of us see textbooks as a necessary evil and some of us get almost allergic reactions when sales representatives from publishing houses come to our offices. (Got several visits and calls myself, even as a visiting lecturer.) For those of us who care about reasonably-priced textbooks, some publishing houses’ practises are anti-competitive and unfair.
Case in point. Decided to use a short, inexpensive textbook for one of my introductory-level classes, two semesters in a row. Price and length did have an impact on my decision (the textbook was itself better than more expensive ones). It was published just in time for the first of those semesters and cost about 40$ at that point. The second semester, without notifying me, the publisher had bundled that textbook with another book. The bundle was 60$. Not that expensive. But my students still had to buy something that we never used.
One problem for an instructor, when the textbook is cost-prohibitive, is that students are more likely to complain if the course doesn’t follow the textbook very closely. Secondly, different editions are often confusing in the changes that they imply (much more so than software releases!) and it’s difficult for an instructor to keep track of all of those discrepancies. Not to mention that an expensive textbook may discourage students from buying other material for that subject.
According to someone close to me who used to work at a publishing house, textbooks are the main source of income for several publishers. A bit like “hits” for record labels, but students aren’t free to choose textbooks as they please.
Obviously, the financial model is skewed.

Those issues should be enough to encourage everyone to adopt a new model. But there’s even more.
Textbooks are typically written by a handful of authors who may be well qualified for explaining several of the issues included in those textbooks but who still have areas of limited expertise. The result in cultural anthropology, for instance, is that textbook chapters on language are usually full of inaccuracies while chapters on the authors’ areas of expertise appear quite decent. In some cases, an instructor might even end up having to “fight the textbook” instead of using it as a reference.
Online material accompanying textbooks in some disciplines generally seem like an afterthought instead of representing a central part of the approach. The ultimate effect is that students get disinterested in that material and will come to rely on other (and often unreliable) sources.
While some publishers offer instructors the possibility to use material from different books, these sources should all be from the same publisher. So an instructor can’t use Chapter 3 from Jane Smith’s textbook published by one of Thomson’s many subsidiaries and Chapter 4 from Amy Johnson’s textbook published by Oxford University Press. How can we get a diversity of viewpoints, in such a situation?

The solution, IMVHO? Open textbooks. Teaching material based on an open content model. Supported by instructors and their institutions. With a flexible, modular design.
Yes, Wikibooks may be part of that solution. But there are other issues to think about. How do we motivate instructors to contribute content to such a project? Does it count for tenure? Who will lead the effort to complete such a textbook? How can we integrate those books in our teaching? Will students use those textbooks the way they were intended or discount them based on perceived lack of quality? Are students without Internet access out of luck? Who will provide “technical” support to students and instructors? How can we produce affordable dead-tree copies for those who need them? How can we make deals with publishers to integrate excerpts from primary texts? How can we share material to instructors without giving too much away to students? How can we integrate this material with course management systems like Moodle (and, for the unlucky ones, even Blackboard)?

Still, if we get together, as students, administrators, and instructors, we can eventually solve all of these issues and, hopefully, challenge prevailing models of academic publication.