Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

You only get this type of education in class – mythic attributes of the lecture

All the brilliant breakthroughs in modern medicine and in communication technologies have developed via this process. You only get this type of education in class. — Professor Tor Hundloe

It seems the Sunday Mail is mining the minor vein of controversy gold provided by the “online lecture” movement. Last week I posted about an article that suggested that attending lectures was old school. i.e. that students weren’t going to face-to-face lectures because they are available online. The above quote comes from another article (Fraser, 2009) in the most recent issue of this Sunday paper.

The article is built around the forthright opinions of Emeritus Professor Tor Hundloe. Opinions which support the newspaper’s previous line that “online lectures” were bad for attendance and that the move by universities towards increasing their availability should be stopped. In this case

A LEADING Brisbane academic is refusing to post lecture material on the web, as part of his campaign for colleagues to halt the “dumbing down” of universities.

Of course, if conflict sells newspapers and journalists need good copy, finding respected academics who disagree with the decisions or directions of their university is a fairly easy route. Just this weekend I came across this quote from Gibbs et al (2000)

academics cannot be
expected to adopt strategies ‘off the shelf’ – after all, they are trained not to
accept propositions uncritically.

Over the weekend we had some friends over for dinner (pizzas informed by this book – the dessert pizza was a big success), one of whom is a university academic. She’d seen this article and was laughing at the opinions of Professor Hundloe.

That’s somewhat understanable when the article finishes with this

Prof Hundloe wants other educators to contact him if they want to help “rebuild the universities as a place of scholarship”.

Given my experience with journalists I’ll give Prof Hundloe the benefit of the doubt. I think there’s a bit of a stretch between online lectures and this sentiment.

Originally, this post was going to have a bit of a laugh at this out-moded/limited thinking. As it turned out it became something different. It’s become the first major step in trying to make concrete some rambling thoughts I have about moving the use of technology in lectures forward a bit. Frankly, I think most current applications of technology to the lecture are a bit like horseless carriages.

Face-to-face teaching: the best and only way to teach

Way back in 1996, as a very early career academic in information technology, I traveled to Barcelona for my first ACM SIGCSE conference to present this paper (Jones, 1996) about teaching university level information technology courses by distance education. The conference was essentially North American and while there were a sprinkling of folk from outside the USA, the predominant population were academics for US universities.

One of the major differences of this conference from other conferences was the presence of working groups who met before, during and after the conference to work on a specific report that was then published. During the conference each working group would present “progress report” posters on what they were doing. This was a great, though often frustrating experience (the 1996 conference was the first time they did it), that helped forge a collaboration between myself and an Irish colleague.

From a work perspective, my longest lasting memory of the working groups was a discussion with one US academic about distance education. It was essentially the same as quote from Professor Hundloe that led off this post. Essentially, the US academic believed that distance education was a second class education and that there were many topics that just could not be taught by distance education.

This was surprising to me because for the previous 6 years I’d been seeing distance education students study a broad array of topics. Not to mention that generally, the distance education students always did much better than the on-campus students. It also surprised me because I thought it was fairly common to know of academics teaching courses where the students did well in spite of the teacher, not because of the teacher. The idea of a “face-to-face” education being the best and only way to teach, regardless of the teacher, just seemed silly to me.

Pattern entrainment

Dave Snowden has given me the term “pattern entrainment” for the tendency for peoples conceptions to be limited, entrained based on the successes of the past. What has worked for us in the past, becomes the source of all our thinking about the future.

From this perspective (and I’m making a leap here based on not really knowing the individuals), it is not surprising to see Professor Hundloe and my US academic not being able to see the value or purpose of something that falls outside their experience. If all you’ve ever experienced is face-to-face lectures, then that’s what you value. This appears to be the same problem leading the Sunday Mail to bleat about the inappropriateness of students not attending lectures.

It’s pattern entrainment which I see as a major cause for the “horseless carriage” approach to harnessing technology, for learning or other tasks. People are some entrained in thinking by their experience with horse-drawn carriages as a mode of transport, when the idea of engines replacing horses comes along the keep everything the same and just plonk the engine in where the horse used to be.

If you want to really get the most out of technology, there is a need to rethink these patterns, to re-consider the unspoken assumptions and see if there are better ways.

This reminds me of a “quote” I first read when taking a Machine Intelligence course in the early 1990s. I’ve found it again online here but haven’t bothered to track the original source.

“Imitation of nature is bad engineering,” he answered patiently. “For centuries inventors tried to fly by emulating birds, and they killed themselves uselessly. If you want to make something that flies, flapping your wings is not the way to do it. You bolt a 400-horsepower engine to a barn door, that’s how you fly. You can look at birds forever and never discover this secret. You see, Mother Nature has never developed the Boeing 707. Why not? Because Nature didn’t need anything that would fly that fast and that high. How would such an animal feed itself?”

If the only organisms you observe flying do so by flapping their wings/arms then that’s the pattern you’re familiar with. So you try to fly by flapping your wings. What if the only university learning you have observed is the lecture? What do you try to do when you teach?

Along similar lines, what do you do when technology comes along? Powerpoint? Non-interactive online lectures?

Mythic aspects of technology

Which brings me to Postman’s 5 things to know about technological change (a copy of the original is available) and in particular #5

Technology becomes mythic, it becomes seen as part of the natural order of things.

What post meant by the use of “mythic” was “to refer to a common tendency to think of our technological creations as if they were God-given, as if they were a part of the natural order of things”. He gives an example of asking his students if they know when the alphabet was invented and this giving them a start. They’d assumed it had always been there.

What are the mythic features of a lecture? I’d already developed a bit of a list, but the notebook is at home, so let’s go again. Some of these don’t always hold, but pretty much do for the stereotypical lecture at a university.

  • Participants
    • Producer/consumer
      An expert produces the lecture and a larger number of people consume it.
    • Limited interaction or participation.
      Consumers active participation is generally limited.
  • Physical space
    • Physical co-location
      The producer/consumers are located in the same physical space.
    • Institution provision of the physical space.
      The physical space is owned by the institution or some other organisation. Rarely do participants reside in a personal space.
    • Every space is a stage.
      The physical spaces are designed around the producer. Around the assumption that the consumers sit there consuming.
  • Time
    • Synchronous.
      Producer/consumers congregate and participate at the same time.
    • Limited.
      The amount of time available for a lecture is typically constrained to multiples of an hour.
    • One-way.
      You can’t rewind and replay time in a physical lecture. It always moves forward.
    • One off.
      What happens in a lecture is history. It’s a one off. If you weren’t there you missed it. (Perhaps related to the previous one).

What else is there? What mythic features don’t I see?

Aside: Jones (2007) – no relation – includes a section on the “Origin and evolution of the lecture”

Horseless carriage lectures

Technology has been applied to the lecture e.g. powerpoint. But that doesn’t change any of the above assumptions. There are two main applications of technology to the lecture at my current institution that change any of the above mythic assumptions of a lecture. They are:

  1. Video-conferencing lectures.
    My current institution has a “interactive system-wide lecture” system that allows the producer on one campus to give a lecture to students at a number of other campuses. This practice loosens the “physical co-location” assumption, but only a bit.
  2. “Online” lectures.
    i.e. recording the lectures (audio or video) and placing them online. This breaks a number of the assumptions: physical co-location, synchronous, one-way, and one-off.

However, both these approaches suffer some problems. In particular, the come against Postman’s 2nd thing to know about technological change

There are always winners and losers in a technological change.

Both of the above place further constrains on interaction and participation. In the case of “online” lectures there is generally no interaction. On the question of interaction, clickers are probably the most common response. But they suffer the problem of co-location, most don’t work across mutliple, physically separate sites of a video-conference lecture.

Both, depending on implementation, also increase the constraints of institutional provision of space. Recently, my current institution was running out of rooms to give and receive video-conference lectures. More recently the network connection to one of the campuses was down (and continues to operate somewhat below expectations) causing significant constraints for both online and video-conference lectures.

As you might tell, while I’ve used both the above approaches, I’ve been wondering if we can do better.

Other approaches

There are folk doing different things. The first one is Carleton University’s project called Video Notes and described in this session (and podcast) from EDUCAUSE’2008. A shorter description is available on the blog of their technology partner.

What I like about this application of technology is that it starts to increase the participation of the consumer. But not by having the producer change what they do. This approach allows the consumer to do things without the control of the producer, it’s a move towards creating the lecture as a “Web 2.0 object” that allows others to play.

What troubles me about this approach is that it is a “one ring to rule them all” product model. The manipulation of the lecture and sharing of those manipulations is still only possible within the one system. There’s still some constraint. There’s also the problem that most of the lectures are still being originally given within the institution’s original lecture theatres and subsequently suffers the same limitations – they can only be created one a room is free, they can only last for a multiple of an hour etc.

I’ve been wondering if it’s possible to start doing this sort of thing with a more social media/Edupunk ethos. An approach that enables, when appropriate, for more of the mythic assumptions of the lecture to be broken. An approach that loosely couples a range of common technologies in appropriate, participant led and emergent ways.

Currently, I’m aware of some experiments being done by Tony Hirst. In particular, experiments with Twitter sub-titled YouTube videos.

Are there other examples of similar work that I don’t know about?

What I’ve been thinking

After some real blue sky, uninformed reflection/dreaming I’ve been wondering about the following possibilities. They assume that most/all participants have decent network connections, computers, the ability and interest to apply it – some very big assumptions.

The current idea:

  • Anyone can use their laptop, camera and like services to prepare and disseminate a “lecture”. As well as providing a long term copy.
  • Twitter or similar could be used for syncrhonous and post-event commenting. Video annotation services could do this as well.
  • Perhaps look at using Twitter as the network infrastructure for clickers.
    In addition to comments, use some sort of online clicker that allows for the producer to ask and collate responses from the consumers.

The aim here isn’t to be exclusive, i.e. only ustream or only twitter, participants could use what they want. But provide mechanisms to bring them together in a way that breaks some of the mythic assumptions of lectures.

It’s still very early days

Why bother?

10 years ago, I would have been asking myself exactly this question. “Lecture suck, why are you trying to fix problems with a broken approach”, I would’ve asked – though probably not as subtly. I know a number of people who would prefer to take the radical route and remove the lecture entirely.

However, my experience over the last 10 years has reinforced that attempting to get radical change from academics is difficult and counter-productive. The article the sparked this post is an example of that and people aren’t talking about replacing lectures, just adding another option. Imagine the reaction if replacement was suggested.

In addition, I agree with the point that Stephen Downes made here about students being conservative. Students think university education is about lectures, they feel they are missing out on something if they don’t get lectures. They’d complain more that academic staff if it were suggested to remove lectures entirely.

I’m also a believer in ateleological processes that emphasise gradual, on-going change. In my experience, it’s only more accepted and used, but it also results in much more surprising results than a teleological/purpose driven process.

More reading

As time progresses I’m hoping to do something in this area, but it depends on the new job and the local context. In the meantime, the following is just some of the reading I need to follow up on.

Jones, S. (2007). “Reflections on the lecture: outmoded medium or instrument of inspiration?” Journal of Further and Higher Education 31(4): 397-406.

Mann, S. and A. Robinson (2009). “Boredom in the lecture theatre: an investigation into the contributors, moderators and outcomes of boredom amongst university students.” British Educational Research Journal 35(2): 243-258.

And for a more “boosterish” story about technology’s impacts on lectures

Any other pointers to relevant literature?

A final word

For a final word and as a response to the quote that started this post, I’d like to turn to Samuel Johnson (my emphasis added) to this quote

People have now-a-days got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do so much as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shewn. You may teach chemistry by lectures:– You might teach the making of shoes by lectures!

Of course, I’m not entirely certain this is a quote from Johnson and my assumptions about quotes have previously been proven wrong.


Kelmeny Fraser, Lectures backlash – Leading academic snubs net, Sunday Mail, 7 June 2009, p44

Gibbs, G., T. Habeshaw, et al. (2000). “Institutional learning and teaching strategies in English higher education.” Higher Education 40(3): 351-372.

Jones, D. (1996). Computing by distance education: Problems and solutions. Integrating Technology into Computer Science Education. G. Davies. Barcelona, Spain, ACM: 139-146.

Jones, S. (2007). “Reflections on the lecture: outmoded medium or instrument of inspiration?” Journal of Further and Higher Education 31(4): 397-406.


University processes – management and planning


An ill-informed observation on connectivism and other learning theories


  1. Jason

    At least one online source I found ( attributes the Imitation of Nature passage to Jacques Vallee’s Forbidden Science

    • G’day Jason,

      Thanks for that. I think that might be the link I had, but can’t remember. I’ve been caught out by Web attributions before so I always like to follow up a bit more before I finalise on attribution. The “definition of insanity” quote and its differing attributions is one example of where I’ve been caught out.


  2. David Snowden

    I’ve got some sympathy with the academic you have labeled as a Luddite here. I think if the lecture is just content, or as I remember from University an academic reading his book, then other media are possible. But the best lecturers respond to their audience and make subjects come alive and virtual has limitations there. We know that human communication is far more than visual and aural stimulation. So I think its a mix and we need more people who excite students to listen and students who want to listen to something other than information they simply regurgitate for a grade

    • admin

      Has been interesting to revisit this post. First to cringe a touch at the writing (naive use of the “luddite” label) and in times post-COVID. The pandemic’s enforced move online and the gradual somewhat stuttering return to “normal”.

      The hope for more engaging lecturers and more engaged students resonates, but isn’t the hand being played at the moment. Massification and the associated focus on employable skills and the like have created a different hand.

      As mentioned above, I think it is possible to “make subjects come alive”. But it is different, both making it harder/more limited, but also opening up possibilities. For example, almost all of the distance students I taught would never have been able to study if required to be face-to-face. Almost all of the most engaged students I taught, were studying via distance education. Echoes of the second of Postman’s 5 things about tech, “There are always winners and losers in a technological change”. Perhaps also #3.

      Interestingly (but not surprisingly) to me is how, even post-COVID with increasing adoption of “online lectures” how strongly the mythic nature of the lecture technology remains. How many people still empowered with contemporary digital technology are still stuck with the mindset of a synchronous 1 or 2 hour “lecture” as being core to their teaching practice. They’ve lost the advantages of “live” and yet fail to take full advantage of the “online”.

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