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Short Attention Span Classroom

A community college in New Mexico is experimenting with “microlectures”, a format that takes a full length college lecture and boils it down to the key concepts and themes running one to three minutes.

Microlectures, which are being used for undergraduate online courses, have been very popular with students and a number of colleges are considering expanding their use.

But does the format improve student learning?

The format encourages active learning, says David Penrose, a course designer for SunGard Higher Education and online-services manager for San Juan College. He developed the microlectures for San Juan. While the quantity of information that a 60-second microlecture can convey is limited, he said, it primes the student to learn from completing the assignments that follow the microlecture.

“It’s a framework for knowledge excavation,” Mr. Penrose said. “We’re going to show you where to dig, we’re going to tell you what you need to be looking for, and we’re going to oversee that process.”

Maybe I’m wrong (always possible, if not likely), but these colleges seem to be abandoning any idea of asking students to construct their own knowledge and instead will be leading them by the nose to the “right” answers.

Which, I guess, is pretty much what we do in many schools anyway.

However, I also have one question for the Professor at the podium in the front of the hall…

If the concepts and themes contained in your lecture can be compressed down to only three minutes, was there any value in the original full-length presentation to begin with?

Just asking.

[Thanks to Sean for the link.]

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4 Comments

  1. It was very interesting to read this on the heels of Dan’s post the gist of which is that we need to allow students to struggle with ideas. We seem to have some folks going way off in one direction and some careening off the opposite way. I don’t mean to suggest that we need a middle ground, I’m firmly in Dan’s camp on this one.

  2. Gone in 60 seconds…

    You ask a very pertinent question at the end of your post. I see the 60 second lecture as essentially being a marketing gimmick. As I said in a post on this topic (see this): It seems to me that a large part of this hyping of mini-lectures has to do with marketing, building on a fundamental misconception that most people have about the nature of learning. Most people believe in a transmission model of learning, where professors transmit knowledge from their brains to those of their students. Clearly the lecture is a pretty good way of doing this – which explains why most people think of learning as listening to lectures… I see this offering of mini-lectures as a form of bait-n-switch that does not serve higher education well. If we have to advertise our programs they should not be along the lines of how little time they will take but rather how good they are… So a mini-lecture complemented by intelligently designed assignments and activities would be great – but it would take significant effort and time. I wonder if the students signing up for these courses know that – or whether they think that all course learning will happen through these little snippets of video.

    More details here.

  3. Dave

    This is brilliant!

    – Modeling summarization. Summarizing is a key skill in literacy, now more than ever with the increased availability of information. It’s important that high-quality summarizations be modeled to students.
    – Decreased focus on lecture, increased focus on exploring. Tim, you’re exactly right about there being negligible value to many full-length lectures. Why not condense them to key points, then let students explore the topic to understand why those are the keypoints.

    I think, really, this is how many excellent teachers already teach…there are echos here of defining daily learning objectives, encouraging hands-on exercises, and other recommended practices. The only difference is packaging the process in a way that makes the technique viable for more teachers.

  4. Having thought more about this, I think that one of the things that any good educational experience should strive to do is to help students figure out how they learn best. If this format provides an opportunity for the students to learn in the ways that they learn best, then I say go for it. At the same time, this probably wouldn’t work for all subjects or for subjects in which face-to-face discussion facilitates the learning process. Good discussion here!

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