The lecture: why does it survive?

Edinburgh Anatomy Theatre
The Edinburgh Anatomy Lecture Theatre of 1888

The epitaph of the lecture has been written many times – for example, see our previous post.  It is truly remarkable that it has survived the arrival of so many competitors.  This has included the arrival of books, then the advent of cheap publishing and the money to pay for it in the 19th century.  In the 20th century it survived film and television, and in the 21st century so far it appears to be barely touched by the the Internet.  Although this last is scarcely 20 years old, and there’s plenty of opportunity yet.  However much of the educational content on YouTube, TED talks, in the new concept of Massive Online Courses, and in implementations of the Flipped Classroom is in fact short lectures.

The Anatomy Theatre at Leiden, early 17th century (Wikimedia Commons)

The lecture has been criticised as

  • Not good for learning.  Too much too fast, little knowledge retained
  • One-time, one-place – inefficient and repetitive for teachers
  • Some students don’t attend
  • Some lectures aren’t very good

So why does it survive?  It does have some key assets

  • You get to see the teacher, and the teacher gets to see you.  Both parties like that.
  • Sometimes they have something memorable to say or show
  • Lecturers often set the exams, so you learn what they are likely to ask
  • They make you think about a topic for at least an hour
  • They’re cheap and they’re the norm.  There’s nothing simpler than picking up your slides and going to lecture to room of 300 people for an hour.  Compare that with 30 x tutorials of 10.

Recording them online takes longer.


One response to “The lecture: why does it survive?”

  1. Interesting proposition!

    As a medical student, I find in theory that live lectures are only useful in the following three ways: (1) they are up to date, (2) they offer the opportunity to learn tricks and tips from the top clinicians in a way that a book simply cannot communicate and (3) they offer the opportunity to refine our filter of what is important to know and what is not.

    Having said that, I cannot see any reason why live lectures should not be video-recorded and in fact I am a fervent proponent of that. This will not only allow us students to (1) replay a talk or (2) listen to a talk to which for one reason or another we could not or did not want to attend, but will also (3) impose an implicit pressure on lecturers to perform better and (4) promote within-lecture interaction with students to increase attendance rates. Video-recording is the norm amongst the highest ranked universities in the world (and not only) and it is technically very easy to achieve. Arguments referring to possible attendance issues simply undermine the maturity and intelligence of Edinburgh students in comparison to the rest.

    Thank you very much for this blog!

Leave a Reply

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