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Considerations for Online Lectures

Is the lecture dead? Many people have declared it so, especially in online learning environments where social interaction and active learning techniques are driving how online courses are designed and delivered. Traditional lectures have been implemented in much the same way for hundreds of years, since before books were printed in mass volume, and lecturers read aloud to students who memorized what they heard.

But what is a lecture, exactly? In a publication entitled "Why Lecture?" [PDF] Henry A. Bent, a chemistry professor at North Carolina State University, outlined the "traditional functions of a lecture."

  • collecting, organizing, and summarizing material
  • stressing important points
  • expanding on particularly difficult features of the discipline
  • repeating and reviewing facts and theories
  • presenting interesting examples and illustrative material
  • indicating (in the U.S. particularly) what will be on the next examination

How many of these functions require a lecture format for delivery? Bent originally presented this list in 1969, and while many instructors now incorporate interactive strategies (e.g. think-pair-share, role playing) into their class presentations, the overall lecture format hasn't changed drastically.

It's not about the technology; it's about how you use it.

Lectures in fact are not dead, and have made the move from face-to-face to online classrooms. There is a lot of discussion among instructors, educational technologists, and instructional designers surrounding the pros and cons of online lectures.

Passive vs. active: Traditional lectures require little activity or interaction on the part of the learner. Perhaps you've experienced that drowsy feeling in a large lecture hall? It can happen during online presentations as well. Long lectures can be difficult for holding attention, making it easy to give in to distractions like checking email.

Integration and interaction: Lectures at their most basic are the communication of content, but content is just one part of the course puzzle. Online lectures still serve a purpose as part of a course, working holistically with other learning activities to support student achievement of the learning objectives. This purpose could be multi-faceted: review, remediation, introduction of new concepts, pulling ideas together, posing questions for further consideration, facilitating discussion, and providing demonstrations. How might these purposes be connected to other course components, such as asynchronous discussion questions and reading assignments?

Student control: One benefit of online lecture delivery is that recordings allow students some flexibility. They can fast forward and rewind, review multiple times, and view/listen at times that are convenient to them individually.

Mark Smithers, eLearning and educational technology professional at RMIT University in Australia, recently posted his ideas and a reminder that simply recording professors giving the lectures they have been giving on campus is not a move forward, and not necessarily the best use of the tools. It can also be an expensive process to complete with uncertain returns related to student learning.

Finding Online Lectures

Free, online collections of recorded lectures that can be embedded in or linked to your course are available through many different sources. These presentations can be used to bring outside experts, opinions, and perspectives into your course as part of the overall presentation of content. Explore a few examples of the range of options and search for recordings that fit the needs of your course and students.

  • Academic Earth: This organization is focused on "giving everyone on earth access to a world-class education" and so collects video lectures (currently over 1500) from prestigious universities, organizes them by subject and instructor, provides user ratings, and makes them available online.
  • Princeton University: Individual universities are also making their faculty lectures available online to the public. In this example, Princeton is streaming lectures and events addressing a wide variety of topics.
  • American Museum of Natural History: Audio and video podcasts from their annual programs series includes lectures by scientists, authors, and researchers.
  • Forum Network: This catalog of presentations from WGBH Educational Foundation is searchable by subject, region of the world, and historical time period. This site includes several NPR and PBS series, such as Frontline and NOVA. Speaker profiles are also available. 
  • U.S. Geological Survey: Government agencies are also posting online lectures with educational audiences in mind. The USGS site, for example, hosts lectures on climate change, ecosystems, earthquakes, and more. 

Live and recorded options are often available. Many conferences are also now streaming live video of keynote speakers. The opportunities to bring this kind of presentation into your course are everywhere. How can they complement your existing course materials? Consider using available collections for review and further exploration, as well as to spark discussion and debate.

Producing Online Lectures

Ready-made recordings are nice, but what if you want to record your own lectures? As mentioned earlier, this can be an expensive process, although there are a host of new tools that allow you to record and produce brief videos right from your computer. A few things to consider before getting started:

  • Why lecture? Answer Bent's question and consider all of the ways in which you could deliver the content you plan to deliver in a lecture. Why is lecture the best option for this content?
  • Seek assistance. Reach out to the faculty support personnel at your school for assistance with planning and production. If you've watched a lot of online video, you know that quality can make a difference, particularly when demonstrations are involved. Faculty development offices are staffed with professionals who are trained with the equipment and production software, and may also be able to assist with the logistics of getting the video or audio into your course site. 
  • Consider length. A common complaint about online lectures (all types of lectures really) is the length of the session. The learners' attention begins to falter and they tune out. Would your presentation be more effective in smaller segments? Shorter videos accompanied by interactive exercises and assignments may be helpful.
  • Provide instruction. Explain how the lecture should be used in the course. Let the students know your intent (i.e. will you be introducing new topics or presenting a review of previous topics) and reason for choosing this format for delivery.
  • Ask for feedback. After adding your online lecture to a course, take the time to assess how it was received. Did your students find it helpful? Do they have suggestions for modification? Did they watch/listen, replay, or skip it entirely? Your school may also have offices ready to help you collect this kind of data and evaluate the effectiveness of your online lecture.

    While lectures can be an informative component of a formal academic course, they may not be the most effective technique in all learning environments. Carefully consider your course learning objectives, subject matter, and students when selecting instructional strategies. If you are in the position of teaching an online version of a course you have taught face-to-face, this can be an opportunity to review all of the course components and perhaps revise the approach. What are your thoughts? What makes an online lecture effective?

    Image credit: _dChris, Flickr

    September 22nd, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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