Monday, 21 February 2011

Modern Learning: Webcasts v Lectures

In this day and age of facebook, youtube, blogging, twitter and online shopping, should  students, at real brick and mortar universities, be happy with lectures being delivered by webcast/podcast? I find my university course is increasingly reliant on webcasts and podcasts instead of traditional lectures. Is this an example of the university and lecturers making good use of their time and resources or is it simply an example of lecturers distancing themselves from their undergraduate students?

There are a great many benefits to having instant access to your class lectures online, many of which are obvious:

  • Working through the syllabus at your own pace
  • The ability to re-wind and re-watch lectures as often as possible
  • Creating your own personal lecture timetable
  • Having access to lectures during revision periods
  • Choosing your own study venue
  • Being able to pause your lecture to take better notes

But how about the down side? Are there any reasons not to embrace the webcast lecture?
My personal experience of classes delivered by webcast lectures has been mixed.

Some of the downsides of webcast lectures include:

  • No opportunity to ask questions
  • It's easy to become complacent, 'I'll watch my lecture tomorrow'
  • It can be easy to rely on the lectures rather than books
  • Creates distance between the student and lecturer

In a time where we are becoming less and less physically connected with people and living more of our lives online, surely there's an argument to be made for going to University, being about going to University? Having the physical experience of interacting with the academics, who's life work has been the study and understanding of a chosen field. Surely part of what makes University learning so valuable is the access students have to great minds with whom they can interact and not just read about. It's this distinction which has marked the different experiences I've had with webcast lectures.

When properly implemented, webcast lectures are excellent tools which save time for everyone and are massively accessible; it feels pretty good to be able to listen to your lectures while out for a jog or on the train to work. The problem in my mind comes when these lectures are used as a substitute for actual contact with the academics . . . . you can't ask questions of a podcast (and expect answers).

The best class I've taken, which was taught largely by webcast, was supported by regular meetings with the professor responsible for the class during which we were all encouraged to ask questions and discuss the ideas from the online lectures. These sessions proved invaluable, as the class knew they were coming and as such they were like progress markers. Everyone would aim to have covered a certain amount of the syllabus in time for each meeting.

My least favorite class employing webcasts was one in which there was zero contact with the class leader (the professor responsible for more than half of the class material). This lack of contact and structure lead many of my classmates, myself included to become disheartened. Morale was low and there was no-one to pick us up, or offer a helping hand upon which we could rely. Without contact, and the opportunity to tap into the wealth of knowledge of the lecturers first hand there is nothing to separate going to university and taking a correspondence course.

My overall feelings on online lectures/podcasts can be summed up quite neatly as follows. . .

Are podcasts and webcasts here to stay? YES
Do I like them and see them as valuable? YES and YES
Are they helpful and flexible tools for teaching and learning? Definitely

In addition to all this I think it's very important to allow students regular access, via lectures, tutorials or Q&A sessions, to the academics responsible for designing their curriculum. Without the access to the academics and the opportunity to ask questions and seek clarification, our understanding will never reach its full potential.

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