A Lecture by Any Other Name

New web applications are changing the way students learn from video lectures.

GUEST COLUMN | by Jim Stigler

CREDIT ZaptionEveryone’s talking about flipping their classroom, and for good reason: sitting in lectures is most often a passive experience, with little interaction between teachers and students. Why not record the lectures on video, have students watch the lectures for homework, then use class time in more creative ways, engaging the students with the teacher in ways more conducive to learning?

As a psychologist who has spent most of my career studying teaching and learning in classrooms, I’m delighted at this turn of events. Even in psychology departments, where researchers study learning (among other things) we still see an emphasis on lecturing, despite years of evidence that lecturing is not a very effective pedagogy. Part of the reason for this is simply the logistics of teaching at a large university: classes are large, and with only one instructor, what else can you do?

The use of clickers (personal response systems) has the power to disrupt the normal lecture, and research (much of it done by physicists, including nobel laureate Carl Wieman) shows that students do learn more when given the chance to engage and make their thinking known during a large-class experience. The number of students in the room is lecture-like, but Wieman and others have succeeded in changing the mental activity of students during the lecture.

Eric Mazur, an MIT physicist, has pioneered a method of using clickers to enable peer instruction in a large lecture hall. Mazur uses clicker questions to assess students’ understanding (and misunderstanding) of a core concept, then sets them on a journey to figure out, by talking with classmates seated nearby, which answers are right and which are not. Students are then given a chance to revise their answers, with the class usually converging on the correct choice.

Of course it’s hard to get teachers to adopt new methods, and this is where flipping comes in. The message to instructors is: sure, your lecture is important (okay, we’ll stipulate that), but because it’s relatively non-interactive, why not just put the lecture on video and let the students watch it from their dorm room for homework? That way they can even watch it twice if they want to. And you still get to lecture!

This of course begs the question of what to do in class if the lecture has already been watched. But knowing that students have watched the lecture on video is enough to give many instructors the confidence to innovate and try new forms of interactions with students when they meet them face-to-face.

I’m reminded of a story told to me by a mathematician about his days in graduate school. In one class the professor came each day with a sheaf of notes, and, without even looking at the students, proceeded to spend the hour copying his notes directly onto the chalkboard. The students, in turn, spent the hour copying the notes from the chalkboard back into their own notebooks.

One day there was a problem with the classroom and they were told they would need to have class outside. My friend went to the professor before class and volunteered to make photocopies of his notes to handout to the class since there would be no chalkboard. The professor was grateful and relieved until, that is, he faced the class. With each student now in possession of the day’s notes, the professor had no idea what to do!

Just putting lectures on video doesn’t change the limitations of the lecture; a lecture by any other name is, after all, still a lecture! Can’t we do better than this? If sitting and watching a lecture in class isn’t a great way to learn, why would we expect it to be more effective when watched on video?

New web applications are changing the way students learn from video lectures. Zaption (www.zaption.com), for example, is a platform designed to make video more interactive – similar to the clicker, but for videos. Zaption allows instructors to take a video lecture (from YouTube, Vimeo, or their hard drive) and add questions, annotations, and discussions at the precise points where they want students to think and engage. Similar to clickers, it then allows the instructor to project response data in class, using the video lecture as a starting point for class discussion.

A recent study by a group of psychologists at Harvard (Karl K. Szpunar, Novall Y. Khan, and Daniel L. Schacter, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) validates interactive approaches like Zaption. These researchers showed that embedding simple memory questions in an online lecture decreased student mind-wandering during the lecture, increased their task-relevant note-taking, and increased their learning.

An online lecture is still a lecture. But using technology, we can turn it into something far more powerful for learning.

Jim Stigler is a professor, researcher, author and entrepreneur. He is an associate dean at UCLA, co-founder of Startup UCLA, and led the video studies for TIMSS – the international project to compare math education. Jim is also the author of two popular education books, The Teaching Gap and The Learning Gap, and his previous company, LessonLab, was an early innovator in online video for education. LessonLab was acquired by Pearson in 2003. He is the co-founder of Zaption.

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