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Are university lectures still relevant?

by Jack Simpson

Lately, there’s been quite a few articles (such as here and here) discussing the use of the university lecture and its perceived shortcomings. The question is asked: is the lecture an unengaging relic from before the digital age? Are lectures really the best way to learn? I attended many lectures throughout my undergraduate studies, and have also tried out massive open online courses (MOOCs) from providers such as Coursera. To be perfectly honest, I don’t mind lectures at all. While they could be dull at times, they had the advantage of sitting you in a room where information was being fed to you whilst you were (mostly) shielded from the distractions of the outside world. Having a timetable of lectures was a powerful way to organise your learning (especially as you were paying for this education). It takes a lot of motivation to sit through a fraction of the lectures each week from online courses.

On the other hand, I have found some course material much easier to digest when it is presented in a more dynamic way than the traditional lecture can provide. For instance, my present work requires that I acquire a better understanding of computer vision. I would find it very difficult to sit through a long lecture involving probability, maths, etc – and a lot of it would quickly go over my head. Recently, I found a course online called “Artificial Intelligence for Robotics” offered for free by Udacity. Instead of long, uninterrupted lectures, each learning unit is composed of 20-30 short (2-3 minute) videos. At the end of each video, the footage is replaced by a text editor, where I have to implement right away what I learned in the lecture before could I proceed. While before I could find it easy to speed up or daydream during talks on this subject, suddenly every second mattered because I was about to be tested right away and build something tangible with the knowledge I had attained. These modules served as both lecture and tutorial at the same time. After each video segment, my code would continue to grow as I continued to add features, and at the end of each unit, I had a program that I could go back to reference in the future.

Out of all the tertiary learning styles I’ve experienced so far, I have found the short video then test/coding method the most enjoyable and interesting way to learn. I don’t know if it will ever completely replace the formal lecture, but I think we’ll see it adopted more and more frequently by online learning institutions in the future.


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