Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Category: iLecture

Gilstrap, Martin and the definition of a lecture

A couple of weeks ago, I was reflecting on something written about lectures when I paraphrased a definition/description of the lecture. I paraphrased it as

A method for transferring the content of the lecturer’s paper to the paper of the students without it passing through the minds of either.

I’d forgotten the exact quote and certainly never had a reference.

In comments on that post, Ian Reid shared the following version and reference

“A lecture is a process in which information passes from the notes of the lecturer into the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either.” (Gilstrap & Martin, 1975)

Peter Albion shared his experience of first hearing this definition in the late 1960s.

So, the question was where did this definition/quote originate?

Gilstrap and Martin

As it happens, Amazon had used copies of Gilstrap and Martin (1975) going cheap, so I ordered one. The intent being to trace the quote back a bit further. Here’s what I found (Gilstrap and Martin, 1975, p. 7)

As has been said, the words of the teacher quite often do go into the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either.

Not exactly definitive.

An earlier source

Searching a bit further brings up this blog post which mentions Eric Mazur mentioning a similar quote (Mazur, 2009, p.??)

I once heard somebody describe the lecture method as a process whereby the lecture notes of the instructor get transferred to the notebooks of the students without passing through the brains of either (3).

Where the reference to 3 is actually Huff (1954). That’s going back a bit further. As it happens there is a scanned version of Huff (1954) available online. With this version and the OCR abilities of Adobe Acrobat I can do a search of that book to reveal (Huff, 1954, p. 47)

It is all too reminiscent of an old definition of the lecture method of classroom instruction: a process by which the contents of the textbook of the instructor are transferred to the notebook of the student without passing through the heads of either party.

The context of this quote is in the examination of a number of flaws about how various findings are reported. In particular, how some phrases are taken uncritically. They aren’t picked apart further to determine what is said, or not said. The example to which the lecture quote is compared is a sentence from a magazine report

a new cold temper bath which triples the hardness of steel, from Westinghouse

Huff asks what exactly does this statement mean? Does any kind of steel become three times as hard once put through this bath? Or does the bath produce a particular type of steel that is three times as hard as any previous steel?

The quote has passed from the publicity release of Westinghouse and into the paper without it troubling the reporter’s mind.

The original source?

So, is this the original source of this quote. It looks like a good candidate. 1954 is fairly early and I’ve sighted the book.

But then there are other attributions such as this (and others) which ascribe the comment to R.K. Rathbun. Interestingly, I’m having trouble identifying Rathbun via Google. Am I showing my ignorance? Anyone help address my ignorance?


Gilstrap, R. L., & Martin, Wi. R. (1975). Current strategies for teachers: A resource for personalizing instruction. Pacific Palisades, CA: Goodyear Publishing Company.

Huff, D. (1954). How to lie with statistics. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Mazur, E. (2009). Farewell, Lecture? Science, 323(5910), 50-51.

Lectures, alternatives, poll everywhere and unexpected events

This Wednesday I’m involved with an experiment and presentation that is seeking to test out some alternatives for lectures/presentations. As it happens, the last week has brought a couple of events that are (so far) helping the case for the experiment. These are described below.

And now for a word from our sponsors…

The aim of the experiment it to break out of the geographic limitations of participation in lectures/presentations. Anyone with a web browser can participate (a Twitter account and mobile phone will increase your ability to participate, but aren’t necessary). The more people who use these medium, the better. So you are invited.

More detail on the experiment/presentation page.

We return now to your regularly scheduled program

Being bumped

I work at CQUniversity. The university has 4/5 regional campuses spread across a fairly broad geographic area. A significant number of courses are offered across all of those campuses. A common approach for some years has been for lectures for these courses to be given from one campus and broadcast across the other campuses via the Interactive System-wide Learning (ISL) system. Essentially a video-conference system with specially built rooms at each of the campuses.

This approach is becoming embedded into the operations of the institution. To such an extent that the ISL rooms are becoming a resourcing bottleneck. Apart from teaching, these rooms are also used for research presentations and meetings. It’s getting to the stage that trying to get these rooms during campus is simply impossible.

Originally, the experiment was scheduled to use one room on each of the campuses

Rockhampton – 33/G.14. Bundaberg – 1/1.12. Gladstone – MHB 1.09. Mackay – 1/1.01.

On Friday I was told that we’ve been bumped from the Mackay room. Apparently someone senior needs the Mackay room for an ISL session that is more important than my experiment.

Normally, this would have meant Mackay staff would miss out on the live presentation. They’d have to rely on the recorded presentation.

Not now. Theoretically, they should be able to participate the same as people off campus. I’m actually happy about this, it gives me a practical story to tell about why this approach might be useful. It will be interesting to see what problems arise.

PollEverywhere Polls and results

Over the weekend, while avoiding work on the presentation I came across this post from Wes Fryer. It describes how they used PollEverywhere in a conference presentation. PollEverywhere is essentially a commercial version of Votapedia which I plan to use on Wednesday.

Some things I found interesting:

  • The graphs.
    The PollEverywhere graphs look much nicer than Votapedias (minor point).
  • A comment that students like this approach because it is a legitimate use of their mobile phones in class.
  • The idea that this type of experiment was an “a-ha” moment for some.

Using Votapedia

In the next couple of weeks I’m going to be giving a presentation that will also serve as an experiment in alternate technologies for presentations. One of those technologies will be – an Australian-based, free SMS/Web audience response system. This post is meant to capture the process I went through in learning about how to use Votapedia.


Votapedia is based on Mediawiki. To create quizzes on Votapedia you need to get an authorised account. This consists of two steps:

  1. create an account;
    Using the normal mediawiki approach.
  2. get the account authorised or known.
    This is entails sending an email to a person with some blurb about what you’re using it for. I got a response in a few hours.

Participants using the service to “vote” don’t need accounts. However, those voting via the Web can create accounts to use in voting – they don’t need to.

There are limits placed on how many times participants can “vote”, but this is done on the basis of the IP address (if via the web) or their phone number (via phone).

Creating a survey

Surveys exist on their own page on the Votapedia installation of MediaWiki. You can create surveys by using some specific markup or using one of a number of “forms” which automate the process. Let’s create one.

A part of the Votapedia home page is shown in the following image. The links in the first left-hand menu are how you create surveys. There are 6 different types of surveys.

Survey type Description
Simple survey
Questionnaire This is a survey with more than one question. Wit h this type of survey you don’t need to wait for everyone to finish a question before moving on.
Quiz Essentially a questionnaire, but with other features (allocate points, can’t see the quiz page before it starts..) to allow it to be used for student assessment.
Anonymous text Participants submit whatever they want
Identified text
Rank expositions

Votapedia home page

Each link takes you to a basic HTML form that guides you in the information required to create the chosen survey. The following image is for the simple survey (click on it to see more).

Creating a simple survey on votapedia

Well, that’s not good. It didn’t work. Filled out the form, all good, hit submit and I get “There is currently no text in this page”.

So, I try to create another survey. Very simple and don’t do anything to upset the gods. Same error. Not good. Go looking and see there’s a link “My Surveys”, perhaps that might give me the link. Yep, the two surveys do show up on that page, see the following image.

My Surveys on Votapedia

Okay, if I click on the link for one of the surveys on “My Surveys” page I get a page with the same “error”. Now, there is a “Choose Number” link for each survey, maybe I need to select that first.

It appears that Votapedia has a limited set of phone numbers, choose number means selecting from that collection of numbers, one number for each response. Some are in red – which means you can’t use them – some are in green.

Trouble is that you can only chose one number at a time and it always asks for me to choose the first number. What about the others?

It would seem that I am missing something important.

Tried to create an “anonymous text” survey, same problem. There are other surveys that seem to be working….

Mmmm, now they are working. The main thing that changed was that I changed the password for my account. I don’t think that will have changed anything. Here’s the proof.

My first Votapedia quiz

Still only able to choose one phone number. Well, let’s try and start the survey. Hit the “Start survey” button….that seems to start it. The numbers are already there. Let’s try. Phone the number for my response, and hey presto it works. Engaged tone and the graph is updated in front of my eyes. That’s neat. Time to tell some other folk.

Ahh, I’ve now got an SMS from Votapedia thanking me for my vote and giving me some details to login to the website.

Now I did want to try and change the survey while it was running. I wanted to remove the results from the page and enable web voting. But it didn’t look like I could change it while the survey was running. So I’ve turned it off and will reset the survey and see if the changes work.

But of course, this was because I was viewing the survey through my account. Not what a visitor would see. Silly David.

Running a survey

Just briefly, asked a few colleagues to take the survey – all up 7 participants. The experience highlighted:

  • Getting the engaged signal when dialing the number gave the impression of failure – this needs to be made clear at the start.
  • The web interface for taking the poll suffered the same problem that I described above when creating the question.

Results looked like the following image. Interestingly, it seems at least some of the participants missed the least modifier in the question.

Results of Votapedia question


Still a bit dodgy in places via the web interface. Phone side worked well. Will need the right sort of preparation of participants.

The question of the phone numbers and how long it takes to dial a response is also an issue.

Lectures and the LMS: Alternatives and experiments

This post stores information about an experiment/presentation seeking to examine alternatives for both the lecture and the LMS. Information available below includes:


The video of the talk is available on ustream. Slides are below.


The following experiment/presentation will take place on Tuesday the 10th of November from 1pm-3pm. The time is based in the “Australia – Queensland – Brisbane” timezone, you can use this converter to make it meaningful for you or the following table might help.

Where When (start time)
London Nov 10, 3am
Washington DC Oct 9, 11pm
New Delhi Nov 10, 8:30am


The experiment/presentation will occur in two forms:

  1. Physically on a number of rooms on the campus of CQUniversity; and
    Rockhampton – 33/G.14. Bundaberg – 1/1.12. Gladstone – MHB 1.09. Mackay – 1/1.01.

    IMPORTANT: Originally the Mackay room was not going to be available. Due to the change in time the Mackay room is now available.

  2. Virtually through ustream, twitter and Votapedia.
    The ustream will probably be through this channel. More details on the twitter and votapedia usage will be given during the presentation.

The current session structure will be

  • Introduction and background – no more than 30 minutes.
    Explain the rationale for the experiment and get people using Votapedia and twitter.
  • Presentation – 50 minutes.
    A dry run of the EDCAUSE’09 conference presentation
  • Discussion and questions.
    Whatever time left will be for discussion amongst the participants.


Postman’s (1998) fifth of five things to know about technological change is that media or technology tends to become mythic. That is, some technologies come to be thought of as part of the natural order of things. It becomes difficult to imagine life without the technology. Postman suggests that this is dangerous because such technology becomes accepted as is and is consequently not easily modified or changed. Such difficulty is a contributing factor to what Truex et al (1998) label as stable systems drag, where an organisation battles against its constraining technologies as it seeks to adapt to an ever-changing environment. There can be no doubt that universities operate in a continuously changing environment (CQU, 2005)

This session consists of a talk and an experiment. Both aim to explore and open up for modification two mythic technologies within higher education: the lecture and the learning management system. The talk will argue for the need for alternatives to learning management systems and describe the implementation and results of such an alternative. The experiment will use various technologies (ustream, Votapedia and Twitter) to demonstrate methods to significantly modify the mythic attributes of lectures and presentations.

You will be able to participate in the talk and the experiment either by coming to one of the ISL rooms on campus or by your web browser. If you do participate, please be sure to bring your mobile phone. If you’re really keen, you may also wish to create yourself an account on Twitter for use during the presentation.

Additional Background

The talk will be a trial run of a presentation to be given at EDUCAUSE’09 in early November. The title is “Alternatives for the institutional implementation of e-learning: Lessons from 12 years of Webfuse”. The abstract for the talk follows.

The practice of e-learning in universities suffers from a number of unquestioned perspectives that limit outcomes. This presentation describes a framework for understanding the full diversity of alternate perspectives and examines one successful set of perspectives arising out of 12+ years of designing, supporting and competing with the Webfuse system.

An extended abstract of the talk is also available.

The talk will be used as the test bed for an experiment with a range of different technologies that seek to question many of the mythic attributes of the lecture or presentation. The technologies being experimented with include:

  • ustream – a live interactive video broadcast platform.
    ustream provides a free, simple to implement and easy to use approach that allows anyone with a web browser to watch the presentation live.
  • Votapedia – a web and SMS audience response system (clickers)
    Votapedia allows the presenter to pose questions and poll participants answers during a presentation. Votapedia will allow anyone with a mobile phone of web access to participate in these questions and answers.
  • A back channel.
    Using a combination of Twitter and features of ustream participants will be able to share a conversation about the presentation while it is happening.


CQU. (2005). “CQU Strategic Plan: 2006-2011 – Creating an opening to a different future.” Retrieved 31 October, 2005, from;policyid=607.

Postman, N. (1998). Five things we need to know about technological change. NewTech, Denver, CO.

Truex, D., R. Baskerville, et al. (1999). “Growing systems in emergent organizations.” Communications of the ACM 42(8): 117-123.

Alternative audience response systems – web, twitter and mobile phone

As part of this project I’m looking at playing with “clickers” that work via the web, twitter, mobile phones or some other medium that removes the physical limitations of traditional devices (i.e. you have to be in the room with the lecturer).

The following will be a summary and description of a growing number of systems that I come across. Suggestions more than welcome.

Poll Everywhere

Early bits of this work was based on the discovery of Poll Everywhere.

This is a commercial service with a range of plans and reminds me somewhat of the services/sites of 37Signals. But $USD400 a term seems a bit steep.

Trouble here is that it is US-based, so it’s a US number to call. It does support Twitter and the Web for voting, but I don’t think a lot of the on-campus people at my talk will be able to use those services. I don’t think Twitter or iPhone like phones have diffused sufficiently.


Votapedia is apparently a free service offered by a project within CSIRO that uses mobile phones and the web (in the form of a MediaWiki). Mobile phone usage doesn’t cost the participant as their call gets the busy signal. The original post generated some comments from a colleague at QUT with a positive experience.

This is the one I’m currently planning to use. I’ve set the wheels in motion necessary to get an account. So unless I find a better service or I can’t get Votapedia to work you’ll be hearing more about it.

Misc others

  • pollgate – twitter only?
  • twtpoll – Twitter, but only followers?
  • SMS poll – commercial SMS, includes an Australian version. Also supports web voting.
  • TextTheMob – SMS or mobile web. Includes message boards.
  • LetsGoVote – another SMS voting approach

Reports of use

Came across this post which appears to report on an experience of doing this sort of thing. It is based around the following presentation. Aspects of the context sound very familiar. The post and comments also generated some additional example systems.

It reports 7 of 30 people (about 30%) generating SMS responses. There’s a benchmark to beat.

It’s connected with this blog post with a case study.

What I’ll be using

At this stage, the plan is to use votapedia. But I have to do some more experimenting, I know have an authorized account which lets me start using it.

The advantages of votapedia, I’d suggest include:

  • It’s no cost to the students.
  • It apparently supports input by both SMS and Web.
    This will help for potential participants who aren’t in Australia. However, it looks like international folk will be able to use the SMS option.
  • It has a range of question types, including anonymous text.
    I’m keen to see how text type responses can be fed into Wordle clouds much like Andy Ramsden tried.
  • Someone at QUT has used it with good results.

Will have to play with this tomorrow.

What is there to know about clickers?

As part of the experiment in presentations I’m planning for later in this month involves the use of alternate types of clickers or audience response systems. The aim of this part of the experiment is two-fold:

  1. Identify a technology that breaks the limitations of the current clickers provided by publishers.
    This includes the need for students to purchase them and being based on a technology that means you have to be in the room to participate.
  2. Identify sound strategies for using them.

This post is about the journey through the literature around clickers and what I’ve found.


I’m planning to/using the following resources:

  • EDUCAUSE resources on clickers/audience response systems.
    I’ve come across these in recent years and started here because of familiarity.
  • Scholar Google.
    Next strategy was to ,a href=””>search scholar google for papers on clickers and related topics.
  • Local experience and expertise.
    There’s been at least one staff member at my host institution that has used clickers. I’m hoping to chat with them about their experiences.

Misc. immediate thoughts

Prevalence in the sciences

Clickers seem to be most prevalent within the sciences. The top searches in scholar google for “clickers” included the following journals: Developmental Cell, Life Sciences Education, Journal of College Science Teaching, Astronomy Education Review, Robotics and Autonomous Systems.

I seem to remember a talk by Phil Long linking clickers to the work in the sciences of establishing rigorous pre/post tests for important concepts. Wonder how that will impact use in other areas? Both in terms of the absence of the pre/post tests but also the apparent observation that most usage of clickers is in the sciences? Does TPACK play a role?

There’s a long history

First introduced in the mid-1960s (Kay and LeSage, 2009)

Lit review

Kay and LeSage (2009) provide a recent lit review of “clickers”.

Typically used in large undergraduate classrooms in maths and science. Students like them, but clickers alone don’t improve learning, need appropriate strategies.

Student concerns include:

  • extra effort to discuss answers
  • wanting response to be anonymous
  • discomfort when responding incorrectly
  • distracted by use of ARS (audience response systems)
  • general resistance to new methods of learning

Generic strategy stuff:

  • Explain why ARS being used.
  • Have practice questions.
  • Question design.
    Question setting takes time, every question should have a pedagogical purpose. Various advice on what types of question to use them for. 2 to 5 questions per 50 minutes. Multi-choice. Questions take 5-10 minutes to display, discuss and resolve. Raises the fear of content coverage.
  • ARS used for attendance, participation and engagement.
  • Assessment strategies: formative, contingent teaching and summative.

Another one

Judson (2002) suggests four important findings from a lit review:

  1. Students will favor the use of electronic response systems no matter the nature of the underlying pedagogy.
  2. Academic achievement does not correlate to behaviorist use of electronic response systems, as highlighted by investigations of the 1960s and 1970s.
  3. Despite “high-tech” improvements, the use of electronic response systems within a behaviorist pedagogy has not produced gains in achievement.
  4. Interactive engagement has been shown to correlate to student conceptual gains in physics. Interactive engagement can be well facilitated in large lecture halls through the use of electronic response systems.

Another tack

Beatty and Gerace (2009) take another tack

In other words, don’t ask what the learning gain
from CRS use is; ask what pedagogical approaches a CRS
can aid or enable or magnify, and what the learning
impacts of those various approaches are.

They identify 3 separate efforts to develop a coherent pedagogy for clickers

  1. Mazur’s Peer Instruction
    Regularly insert multiple-choice conceptual questions about the material, if students answer incorrectly, get them to discuss it and answer again. Some empirical support for improvement.
  2. Assessing-to-learn or Question-Driven Instruction somewhat similar.
    Has a specific iterative pattern of question asking and answering that forms the basis for the learning activity, only mini-lectures given on the side.
  3. Another based on related questions and specific patterns.

They propose Technology-enhanced formative assessment (TEFA) which evolved from and supersedes, A2L


Need some more thought about just how this literature might inform my use of clickers in the presentation. Constraints on the presentation may limit this.


Beatty, I. and W. Gerace (2009). “Technology-enhanced formative assessment: A research-based pedagogy for teaching science with classroom response technology.” Journal of Science Education and Technology 18(2): 146-162.

Judson, E. (2002). “Learning from past and present: Electronic response systems in college lecture halls.” Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching 21(2): 167-181.

Kay, R. and A. LeSage (2009). “A strategic assessment of audience response systems used in higher education.” Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 25(2): 235-249.

Small changes in "Lectures" – ustream, votapedia

Sometime in the next month I have to develop the presentation I’ll be giving at EDUCAUSE’09. The plan is to give this presentation at my host institution before EDUCAUSE and also to try some new technologies to make the spread of the presentation greater in terms of breadth and interaction. This is the start of some reflection and planning for that event.

I’d love to hear from folk their experience or suggestions.

A Problem

My current institution is spread across many physical campuses – 100s and 1000s of kilometers apart – that are connected via networks and some are serviced by a video-conference system. Most of the original campuses have rooms specifically designed to support and deliver presentations/lectures between groups spread across campuses. But there’s a problem, the number of rooms available for these activities is now limited, it’s becoming a bottleneck.

In addition, a significant portion of our student body are distance education students. That is, they never set foot on a campus. These students cannot currently (in general) participate in these video-conference sessions. They can eventually view a recording, but they can’t participate in the live session – both viewing and responding.

In my current role, I want to play around with some technologies and practices that might help solve those problems.

Don’t deny another’s reality

In this TED talk Emily Levine talks about many interesting things, but one of the points that resonated with me was the following idea taken from theatresports

You can’t deny another person’s reality, only build on it

It resonates with me because I’m a firm believe in agile, emergent of ateleological design. i.e. you make small, meaningful changes, think about what happened and then try another small, meaningful change.

Radical change that requires long term planning, a lot of money and significant complexity strikes me as high risk, high expense and as closing off the possibility of learning (i.e. if you’ve spent so much money doing this, it can’t possibly be wrong).

It’s not a technology job

I can hear some that this is a job for the IT department. It it is the job of the IT department to evaluate new technologies, judge their appropriateness, select the appropriate approach and then implement it effectively.

Ahh, no.

Such approaches are generally radical, high risk, expensive and tend to be used minimaly and usually inappropriately. The important point about any new technology for learning and teaching is how much and how well it is used. Such considerations need much broader consideration and insight than typically held by most IT departments.

This is not to suggest that IT departments aren’t knowledgeable about technology. It is to suggest that they typically don’t know much about learning and teaching and getting academics to improve/change their learning and teaching.

E-learning is not a job for IT.

Some early plans

My current plans are essentially to experiment with

  • a live streaming service,
  • an alternate clicker service, and perhaps
  • a back channel.

Versions of these services that require very little change from current practice on the part of the organisation, the presenters and the other participants.

The intent is to allow anyone, from anywhere (assuming they have an internet connection) to participate meaningfully in the presentation. To watch it and also answer questions, make suggestions and comments.

A live streaming service

The plan is to use something like to stream the presentation. This means anyone, anywhere should be able to watch the presentation. Importantly, the aim is to have this ustream be generated by the existing infrastructure within the video-conference rooms on-campus.

This minimises the need for change in what I do. I don’t have to play with my laptop and get it configured for ustream. It also means that the class, whiteboard and document cameras that are available in these rooms can also be automatically included in the ustream. For academic staff who have spent time developing skills in using these rooms this is important. It also broadens the experience the student can have, not just the talking head of the presenter.

As it turns out the local IT department think this is quite straight forward and are actively helping with the experiment. Thanks Dave and Chris.

Alternate clicker service

I don’t like the idea of clickers from publishers. Especially because they need all the students to be in the one room. I’m hoping to use an alternate service that enables anyone, anywhere to “use the clicker”. At the moment, I’m thinking of using Votapedia as talked about on this earlier post.

Currently, I’m seeing the clicker as the formal way I can encourage audience interaction during the presentation.

Back channel

I also want to have some other mechanism to provide an informal method for audience participation. One that I – as presenter – don’t control but one that I can benefit from by seeing comments and thoughts from a broad array of folk.

Twitter is currently looking like the front-runner here.

To do

Tasks to do:

  • Catch up on my RSS feeds as I think some folk I follow have done work in this area recently.
  • Search out literature on clickers, in particular the design of activities using clickers.
  • Experiment with votapedia and twitter mechanisms for formal and informal interaction.
  • Work with the IT department on getting ustream working.
  • Write the presentation.

Alternative to clickers – freeing up the physical location limitation

In a previous post I outlined some broad ideas of how to understand “lectures”. At the crux of it was an initial stab at a “taxonomy/framework” for understanding characteristics of lectures. In this initial stab there were three main dimensions: participants, physical space, and time. Each had some additional sub-points.

As one example, a sub-point of physical space was physical co-location. i.e. for most lectures there is a requirement that you be within the same physical space. There are various ways around this limitation. For example, my institution has a significant physical, networking and support infrastructure around video-conferencing that allows folk to be in a number of physical locations – though still generally on the institution’s campus.

The point of this “framework” was to allow some initial comparisons of the various approaches. For example, clickers have been pushed by publishers as a way of increasing interaction (one of the sub-points under Participants is “limited interaction or participation”). However, most clickers retain the limitation of the same physical space. The technology used in most clickers means that the participants have to be in the same room. Which causes problems with using them over video-conferencing.

Alternative technologies for clickers

With the rise of mobile phones, especially those with web capabilities, it would appear straight forward to move clickers away from using infrared or radio frequency technologies to using the Web, SMS or increasing Twitter. I thought a simple tool that provides support for tracking the Twitter back channel and using it for polls etc during a presentation might be useful. It would certainly get around the same physical location limitation. Having vicariously lived through the EdMedia conference via twitter comments while on a road trip to Longreach, reinforces this perspective.

I was pretty sure that someone else has already through of this idea, so was going to spend some time searching at some stage. I’ll still do that but I did come across a commercial alternative while reading a post from Tomorrow’s Professor.

The name of this service – Poll Everywhere – makes the point about location independence (though I wonder if it being a US-based company has implications for folk using the SMS version). There’s a video on the home page, the integration with Powerpoint looks neat, but it’s not available for the Mac – though there is a work around using a Deskbar widget. It appears that there is a RESTful API and a wiki.

There is a free account, limited to 30 or so responses. An instructor plan that allows 400 responses costs $399 a semester – I’m assuming $USD.

So it is being done. Anyone know of any open source versions? A search for latter date.

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.

Attending lectures is 'old school' – what else is?

A local Sunday paper had an article last Sunday titled “Is this the future of our universities?” and with a sub-heading of “Attending lectures is ‘old school’. This post is a first attempt to gather some thoughts about how the whole thinking about lectures in universities, including the notions around e-lectures in articles like this, are just so ‘old school’. So much so that what passes for “digital lectures” is pretty limited.

Crowded math course

The perception

This quote from the article summarises the thinking in the article and also held by a number of other folk

In a growing trend at campuses across the state, tech-savvy students say they no longer bother to attend lectures that are recorded and later posted online for free viewing.

Much of the initial half of the article talks about the growing trend to institutions purchasing systems like Lectopia, recording lectures and then finding students are making use of the recorded lectures and not attending the originals.

Aside: It appears Lectopia has morphed into (i.e. been acquired by) Echo 360.

I have a number of problems with this view:

  1. It assumes that the technology has created a new problem.
    The assumption seems to be that before the nasty, horrible technology arrived lectures were enjoying 100% attendance rates. Instead, it appears to be fairly widespread that purely physical lecture attendance has, for most courses, always tended to follow a standard curve. Near 100% at the start, dropping off over subsequent weeks, brief surges in attendance when assessment is due and then dropping off until the final surge at the end of term – again in preparation for final assessment.
  2. It misses the point about why students are able to do this.
    Systems like Lectopia record the lecture only. Students aren’t able to interact with the recording, at least not with the people within it. I wonder how many of the lectures recorded on Lectopia actually include activities that require interaction. Would a lecture that involves useful interaction and other activities that students find help them learn suffer the same drop in attendance? Especially if those activities can’t be experienced to the same extent with a recorded lecture.

    As an aside, George Siemens makes the point that lectures, even recorded, ones, aren’t necessarily passive. However, there are interesting and beneficial changes to the lecture approach that can be beneficial. For example, this approach at MIT.

  3. It uses anecdotal evidence.
    Standard journalism. Ring around, get a couple of people to tell you what they experienced and then generalise it. Where are the figures showing attendance before and after the introduction of technology?
  4. It accepts a whole lot of mythic understandings about the role and nature of the lecture.
    This is where I have the biggest problem with the article. It essentially accepts as given that the lecture is important, that students who miss face-to-face lectures are actually missing out on something.

Some research

The Australian Learning and Teaching Council funded a project a year or so ago that looked The impact of web-based lecture technologies on current and future practice in learning and teaching. The best source I currently know of with some reasonable research into this problem.

Students are strategic

I don’t think this finding will surprise too many people

Our findings indicated that students are quite strategic about the choices they make, basing decisions on lecture attendance around three types of factors: educational value; convenience and flexibility; and social opportunities to meet other students, exchange ideas and make new friendships.

Students evaluate the value of lectures and make pragmatic decisions about whether they’ll attend. What would happen if you were faced with the following? You find the lecturer boring, it’s the only lecture scheduled for the day, it takes you an hour to get to campus, you have assignments due, and the lecture will be available electronically. Would you go to the lecture?

Is there a better way?

The important and still incomplete question is gotten at in this quote from the report

With students being offered the technologies and choosing not to attend, some academics have begun questioning the role of lectures. At least 80% of the staff surveyed use lectures to inspire and motivate students; build conceptual frameworks; establish connections with students; use multimedia content; provide structured experiences for students; impart information and make announcements. This raise the question of whether there are more effective ways of achieving these functions.

It’s good to see some questioning of the role of lectures. But I find it disappointing that institutions still seem not to question the role of lectures or its mythic attributes. For example, with all that can be done with technology, what has been done with lectures? Use of Powerpoint presentations, some video and recording lectures in lecture theatres.

It strikes me that lecture recording sessions are horseless carriage versions of the lecture. Same idea, slightly different technology. As the ALTC report says, there must be more effective ways of using technology to achieve the educational goals. Mustn’t there?

Applying the Edupunk ethos

I’ve got a growing interest in investigating a “Edupunk” approach to “online” lectures that provides a more effective way of harnessing more modern technology to achieve educational goals. I’m hoping it’s something I can follow up on.

Learning spaces: expenditure and time spent learning

I’ve just been listening to this podcast of a keynote by Dr Phil Long. Apart from the content of the talk, this is interesting because Dr Long has just recently started work at the University of Queensland (which is just down the road from here) at the Centre for Educational Innovation and Technology.

There is much good content. I particular recommend listening through the question and answer section at the end for a story about a “student/teacher” relationship that is very inspiring.

The bit that sparks this post is also in the question and answers at the end and is interesting to me because of a nascent idea I have for some experimentation. When talking about the future of university campuses, Dr Long suggests that classrooms will become marginal and goes onto say

Most institutions, when it comes to infrastructure, spend 8 of 10 dollars on physical classroom infrastructure, and if you do any study on where students learn you will find that less than 7% of the time when they are working on class related work happens in that box. How do you spend 80% of your dollar on where students are spending 7% of their time?

There’s a growing interest at my current institution in the question of learning spaces, though much of the interest I’ve seen so far seems to be stuck about 5 years ago. The nature of my current institution is such that for a large proportion of our students, the 7% figure would actually be 0%. In some cases, a large number of our students never set foot on a campus.

And yet, much of our expenditure, our concerns, our learning and teaching practice and our management and workload calculations are built around the assumption of the classroom. Even though it is increasingly problematic.

It’s as if, in the words of Postman, that the lecture and its associated goods and chattels continue to be mythic.

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