Don’t Blame the Lecture

A few days ago, the New York Times published the latest high profile story advocating for a ban of laptops from classrooms, mostly at the college level. They all point to a “growing body of evidence” claiming to show that students learn less and get poorer grades when they use devices during lectures.

I was going to chime in with my thoughts on the matter, including more than a few questions about the methodology and assumptions behind these studies. But marketing guru Seth Godin, who occasionally chimes in on education issues (and often makes a lot of sense), has already written a high profile response that has popped into my Twitter feed many times in the past few days.

While it’s not a great challenge to this simplistic nonsense, at least Godin is exactly right that the professor who authored the Times op-ed has missed the real issue.

The times they are a'changing

Why give lectures at all?

Why offer a handmade, real-time oration for a small audience of students—students who are expected to slow down their clock speed, listen attentively and take good notes at the very same rate as all the other students?

I know why we used to do it. We used to do it because a lecture is a thoughtful exposition, a reasoned, researched argument that delivers a lot of information in a fairly condensed period of time. And before technology, the best way to deliver that exposition was to do it live.

But now?

Godin’s recommendation to replace the live lecture – basically going to the “flipped” classroom approach and have students watch a recording of the presentation outside of class – is a crappy alternative.

But he does ask the right question: Why lectures? Why do we continue with the “watch presentation-take notes-answer test questions” approach to learning? Especially since it is becoming clear that this is not an effective learning process.

Which leads to the other half of this question: if we’re not going to lecture at students, what do with do with all that “precious classroom time”?

And it is precious. It’s a curated group of thirty or a hundred students, coordinated in real-time and in real-space, inhabiting a very expensive room, simultaneously.

The K-12 experience is thirteen years built on compliance and obedience, a systemic effort to train kids to become cogs in the industrial machine. And it has worked. One component of this regime is the top-down nature of the classroom. We don’t want to train kids to ask difficult questions, so we lecture at them.

Although teachers in K12 don’t perform as many lectures as college instructors1, most classrooms are still structured around direct instruction. With material structured by the adults and presented to students, who are then expected to extract the required information, and recall it on some kind of test at some later time.

In the end, however, my biggest objection to all these “laptops are making kids stupid” stories is that the researchers – and the writers reporting on their work – always start by blindly blaming the technology and the students.

And assuming our current educational structure is above reproach and needs no alteration.

1 However, the lecture format is still a fundamental part of many high school courses, especially Advanced Placement, which is essentially a college course adapted for slightly younger students.

Picture from Flickr and used under Creative Commons license from brett jordan.

3-2-1 For 12-11-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

It’s a long read, but this story at Huffington Post offers a great look at how the National Football League works hard to hook kids on their product (“tobacco-style” may be slightly hyperbolic), including the development of a fantasy league for 6 year olds. The League’s TV ratings have taken a big drop this season so the company has a lot riding on growing the audience. (about 32 minutes)

Patton Oswalt is a very talented, funny performer. But a year ago, his wife died suddenly at the age of 46, leaving him to raise their 7-year old daughter. In this honest, touching post he talks about his Year of Magical Parenting. (about 4 minutes)

IBM’s Watson made a big splash a few years ago playing Jeopardy. But if you switch to Monopoly, that big brain wouldn’t even know where to start. We hear a lot about artificial intelligence but an opinion writer at Wired says the current systems are more artificial than intelligent. And it’s likely to stay that way for a while. (about 3 minutes)

Two audio tracks for your commute.

Is college worth it? NPR addresses that question by following a group of students from suburban Washington, DC who graduated high school in 2011 or 2012 to discuss their experiences and the choices they made. It’s an interesting program but the pre-roll sponsor is Columbia University, which makes me wonder a little about the objectivity of the reporting.  (49:52)

Most people in the US don’t understand copyright, and especially their rights under the concept of fair use. In the first segment of a new podcast on the topic, Kirby Ferguson, who coined the phrase “everything is a remix”, introduces the idea that even Star Wars is a mixture of story elements going back centuries. A little geeky but still an interesting start. (8:50)

One video to watch when you have time

I am big advocate for using maps to help people visualize a variety of topics, and not just geography. This video from Vox is a great explanation of why all world maps are wrong and where the Mercator Projection, the format used by Google and most other mapping systems, came from. This is a good one to show your middle or high school students. (5:59)

3-2-1 For 9-18-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

First up, a very quick post pleading Blog, You Idiots. “We need good things to read. We need them steadily, from people whose voices we enjoy. Short things. Commentary about a topic the writer has a greater interest in than you do. Something funny. Something very stupid. Not some big, long, boring thing, just a little thing that you read and enjoy.” Now that’s inspiration. (2 minutes)

Under the heading of a silver lining to global climate change, one route of the Northwest Passage was so free of ice this summer that a 1000 passenger cruise ship was able to make the trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The voyage sounds exciting (that’s an amazing picture in the article) but also something that cannot be a good sign for the future of the world. The company is going again next summer if you have $22,000 to spare. (4 minutes)

South Park is beginning it’s 20th season this fall, and the show is almost as subversive, offensive, and funny as when it started. Even more surprising is that it’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, still produce the show and write most of the material according to this interview. After the huge success of The Book of Mormon, you’d think they might have turned the making of a little cartoon over to someone else and just collect the royalties. (12 minutes)

Two audio tracks for your commute.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is one of the great science explainers. Ray Kurzweil is one of the few people who can genuinely be called a futurist (not to mention a genius). Tyson’s interview of/discussion with Kurzweil as part of New York’s 92nd Street Y “7 Days of Genius” series is an interesting, sometimes scary, and fun (in a geeky sorta way) exploration of where human intelligence could be going. (51:36)

Why do textbooks, especially for college courses, cost so much? That’s right up the alley of the people who produce the Planet Money podcast. And this week, in an update to a segment first aired two years ago, they try to find some answers. (15:12)

One video to watch when you have a few minutes.

In the first episode of a new National Geographic video series on the Ingredients used in common products, a chemist takes a deep dive into what’s in the toothpaste most of us use. In the last section, the narrator tries to blend his own toothpaste from only natural ingredients. This would be a good view for a middle or high school science class, although I wonder if district lawyers would allow students to replicate the recipe in class. (6:44)

The Business of MOOC

Tis the time for year-end reviews, as EdSurge1does with “MOOCs in 2015: Breaking Down the Numbers”.

According to them, the number of students enrolling in MOOCs has doubled with “the total number of students who signed up for at least one course has crossed 35 million–up from an estimated 17 million last year”.

The number of courses offered has also increased, with “1,800 new courses were announced, taking the total number of courses to 4,200 from over 550 universities”.

The usual suspects are still at the top as “Coursera, edX and the Canvas remain the top three providers of courses”.

And lots more statistics – languages used (English fell… a little), best reviewed courses, the top rated universities – along with some trends (evidentally free certificates are dead).

Missing from the report, however, is anything about how many students actually completed the courses. Or about whether the instruction was beneficial to their academic life (or their actual life). Or whether students felt the money, time, and effort they put into the MOOC was worthwhile.

For 2016 “MOOC providers have started targeting high schoolers with the intentions of closing the college readiness gap, helping students to get a taste of different majors through introductory courses, and providing exam preparation (like AP) courses”. And increasing their business.

Because, as best I can understand from reading EdSurge, MOOCs are all about the business, not learning.

Again, Tech is Not the Problem

A college professor writing in the New Yorker makes the case for banning laptops in the classroom.

Or at least he tries – and largely fails.

…the temptation for distraction was high. I know that I have a hard time staying on task when the option to check out at any momentary lull is available; I assumed that this must be true for my students, as well.

I wonder if he asked his students about the situation in addition to assuming their experience was just like his. And why is their temptation for distraction so high?

He goes on to cite a study which concluded that “disconnected students performed better on a post-lecture quiz”, and in the next paragraph acknowledges that the assessment method used by the researchers, a pop quiz, “are not the best measure of learning, which is an iterative and reflective process.”

Then, after discussing research that tried to incorporate more precision in to the investigative process, he at least approaches a part of the problem that does not assign sole blame to the technology.

These examples can be seen as the progeny of an ill-conceived union of twenty-first-century tools (computers, tablets, smartphones) with nineteenth-century modalities (lectures).

But that recognition doesn’t last long.

Common to all of these contexts is the human-machine interaction. Our “digital assistants” are platforms for play and socializing; it makes sense, then, that we would approach those devices as game and chat machines, rather than as learning portals.

It really doesn’t make sense. You’re the teacher. If you want your students to approach their devices as learning portals, then structure your instructional practice to fit that idea. Don’t assume they graduated high school with that understanding.

Anyway, he ends the piece with this grudging conclusion.

We’re not all that far along in understanding how learning, teaching, and technology interact in the classroom. Institutions should certainly enable faculty to experiment with new technology, but should also approach all potential classroom intruders with a healthy dose of skepticism, and resist the impulse to always implement the new, trendy thing out of our fear of being left behind.

In other words, we need more research about how we can keep our “nineteenth-century modality” for delivering information to students, followed closely by our time-honored assessment system of course, and “resist the impulse” to allow “new, trendy” things like laptops and wifi to be used.

Again, did any of these professors bother to talk to their students about how they learn best? Did any of them consider that maybe their approach to teaching was the part of the problem that needed fixing?

This essay reflects the university-level experience through the lens of a small group of professors. However, we have many K12 teachers who express similar feelings (and fears) about “twenty-first century tools” intruding on their traditional instructional methods.