Podcasting Killed the Lecturing Star

19 09 2013

The first video ever played on MTV, back when MTV played music videos most of the time, was the one-hit wonder “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. A lament about how new technology ended the career of a singer who was well-adapted to the production standards and genre constraints of an earlier era, the song recounts an irreversible process:

In my mind and in my car
We can’t rewind we’ve gone too far
Pictures came and broke your heart
Put the blame on VTR

Maybe this rings a faint bell for some of you. In any case, for a quick refresher, you can watch the whole thing here.

The great irony of MTV using this to launch an entirely new avenue for experiencing music (music videos weren’t new in 1981, but the idea of a basic cable channel that showed basically nothing but such videos was quite new) is that it took The Buggles’ tragic tale and drew from it, at least by implication, a silver lining: the end of the radio era was the condition of possibility for the video era, and the experience of music was thereby enhanced and transformed. Radio stars might die, but music would survive and thrive.

As I read the discussion thread that unfolded underneath my brief pedagogical query from a few weeks ago, and kept composing replies in my head that I couldn’t make the time for amidst the chaos of the opening week of the semester (and no, APSA had nothing to do with it, since I don’t go to APSA these days…but that’s material for another post entirely), I kept coming back to the thought that there was something of the sentiment of this song in many of the replies, and something of MTV’s ironic deployment of the song in my reaction. I would submit that podcasting has killed the lecturing star already, although news of that death has yet to reach all corners of the academy. Large live lecturing, like churning one’s own butter or properly loading a flintlock musket, is a historical curiosity, perhaps something one might expect to see in museums or at Renaissance Festivals being practiced as a hobby, but not in the heart of a university. But this death of the lecturer is also an opportunity for teaching, much as MTV was an opportunity for music — not wholly positive, not wholly negative, but different. And ignoring that difference, which we can keep doing in the academy for a while because of our tenuous-but-still-extant-in-many-quarters isolation from broader socioeconomic trends, is not a strategy for continuing to educate the students who keep filling up our classrooms and our campuses.

Let’s define some terms. By “large live lecture” I mean a pedagogical format in which one person stands or sits at the front of a room facing numerous (say > 50) students, and the person in front of the room delivers information which the students are responsible for converting into notes and stashing away in their brains. Whether presentation slides are used, whether the students are seated in fixed rows of desks, whether electronic clickers are used to check the students’ receipt of the information, even whether the lecturer interrupts the steady stream of information for the purpose of asking a “Socratic” leading question to which the lecturer already knows the answer and is simply fishing for something specific before moving on: all of this is quite irrelevant, because it doesn’t affect the basic lecture form, in which the lecturer gives out information and the students try to catch and internalize it. “Drinking from a firehose” strikes me as an appropriate metaphor here too: lecturer gives, students receive. I hasten to add that this is, in my view, not some additional piece of pedagogical philosophy that is added onto a lecture; this “banking concept” (to use yet another metaphor) is built into the lecture format, so if you’re uncomfortable with this model of teaching and learning, I would suggest that you are actually uncomfortable with the lecture format itself.

In this way, the distinctive thing pedagogically about a large live lecture is that it defines learning, operationally, as the retention of information. This approach can be used in a less “large” setting, but in my experience, having fewer students in the room works against maintaining the lecture format, because people interrupt more easily and conversation starts to flow, and all of a sudden learning becomes more about collectively wrestling with something instead of listening to the person in the front of the room tell you about something. Once the discussion starts, the operative definition of learning changes too, as evidenced by the fact that people stop taking notes as religiously: learning is no longer about quips and facts, but about interpretations and arguments. (I also find it interesting, and instructive, that most of the pro-lecture commenters on my previous post cited various ways in which they were relaxing the lecture form to produce more interactive discussion…which to my mind underscores my basic point, which is that the lecture format itself is structurally selective for a certain mode of teaching and learning, a mode that many of us are uncomfortable with to the point that we adopt various ways of disrupting the format.)

All of this suggests to me, as it apparently did recently to the folks at Stanford Medical School, that we should isolate the basic thing that large live lectures do — disseminate information — and put that part up online, and save the scarce resource of class time for other activities. Students can rewind and rewatch a podcast presentation, and with a little ingenuity and some freeware software tools those can be made into something other than a tight shot on a talking head through the importation of video, photos, etc. If you want to get a point across in short form, I submit, there is nothing about doing so in person that can’t be done online. But what about the other supposed benefits of lectures? “Making the material come to life”? I’m not sure why one can’t do that just as easily in front of a camera. “Generating enthusiasm”? “Responding to audience feedback”? Let me take up the “live concert” parallel for these two. I can’t say that attending a concert has ever increased my enthusiasm for a particular artist, although it has sometimes deepened it (which means: I was already enthusiastic enough to buy the ticket and attend) or been an occasion to introduce me to something I’d not heard before (the logic behind being an opening act for an established band: more exposure, and if the match is right, more exposure to fans of the same kind of music). And in any case, the experience of the live performance is the key thing one goes to a concert for; if it’s just the sound of the music performed live and perhaps changed up as the band feeds off of the crowd and vice versa that you’re looking for, well, a good soundboard recording is better than standing there in almost all cases. A live performance is an experience, an end in and of itself. Not so a lecture, in which one is supposed to have learned something.

Let me pursue this a bit further and unpack the notion of “learning something” by deploying my favorite typology of ways of knowing, which I know can be found a bunch of places but my favorite version is the one spelled out by John Shotter. Learning something, I will presume, means increasing one’s knowledge of something, but knowing comes in at least three flavors: “knowing-that,” “know-how,” and “knowing-from-within.” The first is factual knowledge of the sort that we academics often specialize in. The second covers applied skills that we see more often in “applied” or “craft” fields of endeavor, or those parts of our professions which look the most like that. The third is a bit more unusual, because it covers the kind of knowing how to “go on” that is characteristic of someone who belongs to a community — the exercise of good contextual judgment, so to speak. Calling all three of these “forms of knowing” accents, I think, the extent to which they are all learned rather than innate, and thoughtful activities rather than unthinking behaviors.

So what does a large live lecture contribute to these three ways of knowing, and what if anything does it contribute that can’t be recorded and put online?

As I have suggested, the typical kind of knowing that a large live lecture aims at is “knowing-that.” Here are some facts that I the lecturer want you the student to hear, note, memorize, and spit back. These facts might not simply be disconnected prices of information; they might also be facts about what an author says, which explanation of an event is the correct one, what the correct formula for national income is, etc. As a student, I demonstrate that I know these things by repeating them when asked to do so, in class, on an exam, whatever. Any questioning I do comes outside of the format of the lecture, and probably outside of the format of the lecture class as a whole. A good lecturer is skilled at “getting the point across” in such a way that the listeners remember it. Setting aside for a moment the intriguing finding of numerous studies that talking at someone is not even an especially effective way to get facts into their heads, I would argue that a) if a large live lecture has a pedagogical comparative advantage it has to be in contributing to this form of knowing, and b) there is nothing about the “large” or the “live” parts of the large live lecture that are essential to that contribution. Indeed, for students with neurologies and learning styles that are simply not conducive to plucking information out of a verbal stream and translating it into written form, or who are easily overwhelmed by the sensory experience of a lecture hall, the “large” and “live” parts might be detriments. So podcasting the lecture, and saving the scarce resource of face-to-face classroom time for other, more engaging activities (discussions, simulations, role-playing, group projects, games, etc.), would be a positive benefit for those students, and not harm anyone else. Indeed, by leaving time and space for activities other than sitting in a classroom taking notes, I would say, podcasting the lecture (if you even need to lecture, perhaps to give out some reading notes for the text the class is reading that week, or instructions for the simulation, or whatever) is a positive benefit for everyone, even if one is interested in learning primarily in terms of knowing-that.

Now, if one is interested in learning as increasing know-how, I would suggest that lectures do nothing for you whether they are large and live or podcast. Listening to someone talk about how to ride a bicycle or drive a car does zippo in terms of helping me ride or drive better. You learn to ride a bicycle by practicing riding a bicycle. Ditto every other practical activity one might think of. (Check this yourself: what have you ever learned how to do by listening to someone tell you how to do it? Even if someone gave you directions at the outset, I will bet, you actually learned how to do it by doing it and getting helpful feedback on your performance.) And watching someone else play the guitar doesn’t make me a better guitarist (although I grant that it might make me aspire to be a better guitarist…but do we really want our students to aspire to be better lecturers?). So: what does a student in a lecture practice, by way of increasing their know-how? Being a throughput for a stream of facts. Taking notes. Receiving information. Is this really what we want to teach in our classrooms? I would say not, because our courses aren’t called “Note-Taking” or “Information Receiving.” In some of our courses we want students to be able to do new things when they come out of them: we want them to conduct research, write papers, produce films, negotiate with opposing parties, solve equations, and so on. So why not rearrange class time so that students get to practice those skills, as opposed to the basically-useless-outside-of-a-lecture skills of note-taking and information-receiving?

And it’s even worse with the third kind of knowing. We develop good judgment and character not by hearing someone talk about it, but by exercising it and seeing others exercise it. I learn how to run an effective classroom — which is less a skill and more a habit or way of being — by being in well-run and poorly-run classrooms, and then perhaps by having an opportunity to talk with others similarly situated about what makes a good or a poor classroom. In so doing I form myself as someone who is capable of running a good class, and of exercising the proper kind of judgment about the syllabus, the format, and all the myriad other things that go into a class. Listening to a lecture called “How to Teach A Good Class” (or reading one of the all-too-numerous books on the subject, all of which are I think based on a category mistake because knowing facts about the characteristics of a good class doesn’t help me actually run a good meeting) is insufficient, because even if I hear some good tips, it is still incumbent on me to judge when to put them into practice. If know-how comes from practice, knowing-from-within comes from participating and reflecting. As a student in a lecture I participate in passivity, and all I can reflect on is the skill of the lecturer or the nuances of the performance…which makes me a better aficionado of the lecture genre, perhaps, but what’s the value of that? Attending performances of music or theatre has this kind of value inasmuch as attending more concerts and plays is itself a good and enjoyable thing. Lectures as an art form? I doubt it, and the market for lectures seems a lot weaker than the market for concerts and plays, so apparently a lot of other people doubt it too. (How about sermons? But they aren’t lectures, because they are not moments for teaching and learning as much as they are hortatory, inspirational occasions, and thus more similar to political speeches than to lectures.)

In sum: if you are interested in knowing-from-within and/or know-how as outcomes of your classes, I think you would be well-advised to take advantage of the current technology and stop the large live lecture, using the resulting class time thus freed up to engage in activities that are more directly connected to those forms of knowing. (One technique of which I am especially fond is podcasting an argument, not a lecture on which people are expected to take notes, and then using class time to discuss and debate that argument, preferably in dialogue with whatever text or texts we are reading for that day.) And even if you are interested in knowing-that, podcast the information-delivery and use class time to engage the students in activities that might help them fix the facts in their heads better. I simply do not see any reason in this day and age to keep assembling students in a lecture-hall so someone can pontificate on stage while they are supposed to be taking notes (but many of them are on Facebook anyway, or if you are enough of a curmudgeon to have banned laptops from your lecture-hall, they’re daydreaming or doodling or just plain zoning out). Podcast whatever content you have to deliver, and then get people together in small groups (those are probably easier to do in person, given current bandwidth constraints) to discuss it, wrestle with it, reply to it, put it into practice, or whatever. Otherwise you may wake up one morning and find yourself in the place that The Buggles’ character finds her- or himself:

And now we meet in an abandoned studio.
We hear the playback and it seems so long ago.
And you remember the jingles used to go
Oh-a-oh, you were the first one.
Oh-a-oh, you were the last one.