Sunday, April 04, 2010

Lecturing Without Slides - Kinsella

Stephen Kinsella outlines some thoughts on models of how to give lectures and is looking for comments and questions. His basic model is a "pre-podcast" to give the students the pedagogical material. The lecture is then used as a forum for discussion, debate, clarification and so on. Then students are assessed online. Stephen has been doing more than anyone in this neck of the woods to bring technology into the economics classroom and I have been following closely what he has been doing. My own use of technology has mostly been limited to using this blog for communicating more broadly, Beamer and Powerpoint for slides, as well as econometrics software for applied projects, and most importantly maintaining websites for my courses where everything the student could possibly need (reading lists, sample exams, lecture notes and so on) are provided. Having a central space where students can access everything is the most important use of technology, in my experience. The model that Stephen outlines is very tempting though. The best experiences in lectures are when you throw the ball among the class and this is often hard to do if you are trying to get through 100 slides in a couple of hours.

I still believe that expertise and enthusiasm will always dominate format, by which I mean a lecturer who is not an expert on or not convinced by his/her own material will be less favoured by students regardless of slide use. Having said that, variants of what Stephen is suggesting clearly have enormous potential for encouraging a wide form of engagement. The Harvard Justice course by Michael Sandel is my ideal model of what a gold standard course would look like. I think it is groundbreaking in its ambition and scope, allowing anyone with an internet connection to sit through one of Harvard's best courses. This creates an enormous externality. Furthermore, does anyone believe that Sandel's course is going to be less attended next year because he has made all this material available? I would also believe that he is probably raising global demand for this type of knowledge and is probably a complement to people teaching justice courses in other universities rather than a substitute. Thousands of people can access courses in this manner and essentially "audit" them without any certification or mentoring.  People who then decide they want to actually train more fully in these disciplines can then enroll and attend more "mentored" lectures along the lines of the ones Stephen is talking about. It encourages us to think a lot more about the value created in the "in-person" lecture and I agree with Stephen that there is an enormous amount that can be done in this setting that is sometimes crowded out by trying to rattle through core material.

The main potential drawback to this model is the time and money resources needed to produce and host the podcasts, and I would be interested in how Stephen addresses this in a later draft. People have high expectations now of sound and picture quality when it comes to accessing podcast material. Even if it is restricted to the students only, a poor quality podcast is hardly a good signal to send about the university one is lecturing in. To get high quality productions may require more expertise than the average lecturer can muster up and more technical support than is feasible if one is lecturing on a daily basis. Perhaps a podcast model is something more suited to a small number of "alpha" courses that are particularly suited to this treatment. I would, in principle, be willing to have video podcasts of my lectures available but I would be nervous if the picture quality were not very high. Another minor point is that no course is a static entity and I am not sure how comfortable I would feel with every lecture I have given being available forever. I am sure there are people with expertise on how to "retire" something from the web so this is hardly insurmountable but it is a concern. Stephen's model doesn't necessarily include making the material available outside the university but it has generally been his practice so interested in keeping that aspect of the discussion open.

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