Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

How to replace the lecture?

Almost 16 years ago I gave my first presentation at an academic conference. It was AusWeb’96 and I was talking to a paper titled “Solving some problems of university education: A case study”. I started out my presentation with “Lectures suck!”.

Some additional encouragement to study
I proceeded to explain why I thought that, especially in my context of a course with 26 students on-campus and 62 off-campus. Including Allen in Cyprus (see the photo).

Fast forward to today and I’m about to take on a course with at least 120 students off-campus, 60 on the campus I’ll be teaching, another 60 at another campus, and yet another 40 or so at another campus. Guess what? There is still an assumption that there will be a 1 hour lecture and 2 hour tutorial for the on-campus students. It is also typical practice to record the lecture (either live during the on-campus lecture or pre-recorded) and make that available to the off-campus students. These off-campus students also get a synchronous online “tutorial” in Wimba.

And this is for a course that seeks to show pre-service teachers about the transformation of learning and teaching made possible by Information and Communication Technologies!!!!

My challenge now is to figure out what (if anything) I can do to move away from what I see as far from terrific modelling of the course message.

My question to you. What good examples have you seen of University courses replacing lectures and tutorials for something different, something better?

A contextual aside

This should not be taken as a criticism of the folk who have taught the case before. The decision about how to teach a course has to be taken within a given context and I’ve yet to see a University context that is truly conducive and encouraging of transformation in learning and teaching. It’s mostly tweaking around the edges.

All of the infrastructure, software, policies and expectations at a university are based around lectures and tutorials. You can’t get fired for giving a lecture. You can annoy an awful lot of students by not meeting their expectations of a lecture.

Which is not a reason to do avoid this, but it is a reason to weigh up the effort required against the other requirements of being an academic and having a family. e.g. 16 years ago when I did the first transformation I was single. I now have a wife and three kids.

Having the time and energy to adopt any transformation is going to be a factor.

Vague current idea

Without any great thought, my current idea is to use a the Moodle book module to create a “learning path” for each week. The path would use a lot of external video, audio and other resources to provide the “content” and use various Moodle (discussion forums, database etc) and external services (Google docs, Twitter etc) to activities. The idea being that all students are able to work through this material when and where they want.

The current scheduled lectures and tutorials would be used for f-t-f and perhaps online opportunities for students to talk with me. Preferably, I’d cancel some of the tutorials and instead invest the time in participating in the course with the students. Interacting with them and responding to their problems, questions and participation.


It's better at home: One contributor to why ICT integration in schools sucks


Are teacher preparation programs dangerously irrelevant?


  1. I’ve talked about this concept with a few lecturers now. The issue I come across is most want to ‘get rid of the lecture’ as a calendar committment, but still want it to exist a la Khan Academy/flipped classroom. It’s a step in the right direction (ie using lecture time for more active learning), but you’re probably aware of my feelings on this model. Only one that I’ve talked to has genuinely wanted to ditch lectures entirely.

    Some of the ideas we’ve tossed up have been not dissimilar to what you’ve outlined – online self-directed ‘messy spaces’, and using the mandated/expected F2F time for problem-based/scenario-based groupwork etc etc. I have no idea what will eventuate from this but will keep you posted.

    The point you make about annoying students by not meeting lecture expectations is one that’s been a huge sticking point for me for a while now. I had thought I’d blogged about it but can’t find a post on it now (although I vaguely touch on it here: Essentially I think there’s research that needs to be done on student concepts/perceptions of what higher education looks like and how we can break the cycle of meeting their demands and sell them on expecting something better (cf tech companies making products their comsumers don’t know they want yet). In our current market it’s very difficult to ditch lectures based on student demand.

    The upshot of my now rather quite long comment is that I don’t have any nice examples for you, but think you’re heading in the right direction and think the more of us that head that way the better :).

  2. My kids still spend many hours watching Youtube videos which are basically people sitting at their computers and talking – i.e., lectures. I don’t subscribe to the ‘lectures suck’ meme. Most humans still like to interact with humans. IMHO.

    • Chris, thanks for the comment.

      I should mention that I don’t think that lectures sucking is a global thing. Like any judgement it has to be contextual.

      Some reasons why I think lectures suck in the context that I am working in, include the following.

      Anything synchronous for distance education students is generally a bad idea. They study at a distance for the flexibility.

      The lectures I have to give a fixed to an hour. For many of my students the learning I want them to engage in may take longer than an hour. I want them to have the time.

      And based on past experience, I can give the students a much more interactive learning experience by reframing the lecture. Getting rid of the lecture isn’t about reducing human interaction, it’s about increasing it and making it much more effective.

  3. This is one of the better examples I have come across.

  4. This is partly in reply to Sarah: I have many colleagues who want to give up or change the position of lecturing in the way they teach, and are then penalised for this in terms of workload management. The second problem is the inflexibility of university timetabling, so the problem is not simply the assumption that the standard weekly pattern is a lecture plus tutorial, but the associated assumption that this pattern will repeat identically for the whole semester.

    And then there’s the inflexibility of the spaces within which lectures occur, making it very difficult to do different things within them.

    I think it’s often hard for individual lecturers to advocate for change under these circumstances, when the institutional investment in the “efficiencies” (including cost saving) that they offer is so strong.

  5. David

    I guess it would be useful to think about the time with students with alternative metaphors to the lecture/tutorial mode that the university policy dictates. The one you use with students will shape the culture of your teaching and their reaction to it. In my implementation, I will be using alternative language and the content, my guided activities and students personal learning journey will be mixed up during the three hours we have. We will have learning conversations, practical activities within their personal learning networks, assessment preparation and personal learning time. I have an image of four colours ribbons platted together as the metaphor for their learning journey.

    This is fun to think about

    • G’day Michelle,

      While I recognise that face-to-face time can be utilised in many different ways I’m struggling with a number of things, including

      • The rather limited way technology is being used to service the online students.
        i.e. simply recording the lecture and doing a synchronous tutorial with a technology that has been described as flaky and when synchronous anything tends not to work with the requirements of online/DE students.
      • The time (only 1 or 2 hours, rather than however long they need/want) and location constraints of any form of on-campus session, especially in light of changing work patterns of students.
      • The separation of students into on-campus and online students and the subsequent increase in workload (due to having two different groups) and perception of on-line as second class (i.e. not having a live lecture etc.)
      • The physical constraints of the first hour in a lecture theatre (which is unlikely to be solved).
      • The impression formed by students when the course – where “transformation of pedagogy with ICTs” is a key point – relies on technology to re-create existing practice.

      I will be interested to see how you go with using different language/practices to mix up the journey. But I’m not sure that this address the above problems in ways I’m trying to think about.

      I should note that this particular view is influenced by my recent activity going through prior lectures/tutorials (but not viewing the lectures yet). The impressions I’m forming from these is probably not useful, nor accurate.

  6. For five years I have taught a university course in Quantitative Methods for Business using the Keller Personalised System of Instruction. Because of the university’s love for lectures I kept giving lectures, but as the on-line material got better, the students realized they were better to wait until they were up to the level of the lecture before viewing the video of it (or not). Then one year ago our city was hit with devastating earthquakes and we were encouraged to move away from physical lectures until our facilities were repaired and made safe. For me it was a golden opportunity to do what I had wanted to for some time, and make all the lectures virtual.
    Various methods of delivery are used, but the backbone of the course is a set of exercises which the students need to master before moving on. I have some videos of old lectures from before the quakes, some audio combined with lecture notes, some carefully developed videos on Youtube (see I also have interactive step-by-step exercises or lessons, and some surprisingly popular true/ false tests to help develop conceptual understanding.
    The course is popular and successful. I miss giving lectures, but enjoy the more intimate drop-in tutorials. Because my interaction with the students is more direct, I get a better idea of what they find difficult.
    Much of what I have learned I am disseminating in my blog i have also developed an iPad app – AtMyPace: Statistics.

    • G’day Nic, Thanks for taking the time to respond and being the first to provide an example that is working. I plan to look more at your work over the coming weeks. David.

  7. I’m going to tackle this from a students perspective. Both as a distance student and a Internal student.

    Now just to give you a bit of background, as an internal student I have a part time job that i need to go to x amount of hours a week to survive. Sometimes (lots of times) this clashes with the hours the lectures are provided on. So thankfully with the advent of online lectures I can catch up from what I have missed from that lecture and still not be behind on the course. At my uni, the first 3 weeks are packed full of students but as the weeks go by the numbers dwindle to where a class may have been 300 to start with is now 30/40. So if I can listen to someone/ lecture about a subject for an hour or two and that’s all it takes (plus the readings and myriad of other things to do) Great! 1 of my 4 subjects is covered. That is why as an internal student I still don’t mind lectures.

    On the negative side, some lecturers or subjects are just plain boring! Its a sad fact. These are the ones that would benefit from taking a different tact. As having done distance courses as well, it is extremely annoying to hear that the people who have been able to go to the lecture and have been able to ask questions but me sitting on my own at home have not either been able to, or not heard the question. This is quite frustrating! However I had a thought not long ago on using twitter as a way of distance students and other students being able to do a search for a hashtag and tweet their questions to the lecturer. Not only would the lecturer be able to read the chatter and the questions but you could see what the thought process is behind what the students are thinking. Of course I blogged it at link however this may be helpful to bringing the lecture experience to a more interactive forum?

  8. I just read this post about things the lecture does well, and thought it would illuminate this discussion:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén