Death knell for the lecture?

Author lecturing in Yonsei University, Korea

Author lecturing in Yonsei University, Korea

This week I have started filming short video clips for a MOOC that will be broadcast in February in parallel with my undergraduate course on Thermodynamics. The Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) is provisional titled: ‘Energy – Using it and Losing it: Real-World Thermodynamics for Beginners’ and will be offered through FutureLearn to a worldwide audience. The video clips, which essentially replace the traditional 50-minute lecture, will be about 3 minutes long recognising that this is the longest time period that many young people will focus uninterrupted on a single activity.

Last week was the start of a new academic year in which we have been instructed to use newly-installed software and hardware to record or, in the new terminology, video-stream all of our lectures. The ‘streamed’ lectures will be made available online for students to watch at anytime during the academic year. All of this is happening when attendance at lectures is falling, which leads me to wonder whether these events represent the death knell of the traditional university lecture?

We have known for sometime that people’s maximum attention span was typically fifteen to twenty minutes and yet lectures have remained stubbornly at 50 minutes duration with many double lectures timetabled. Considerable ingenuity, imagination and energy is needed to deliver lectures that engage students for these time periods (see Engage Engineering for tips on how to do this). So it should come as no surprise that many lectures are half empty when students have alternatives such as short video clips available online, streamed lectures that can be fast-forwarded over the boring bits or rewound to repeat important sections, as well as the old-fashioned approach of reading a good textbook and teaching yourself.

Lectures are in many ways a theatrical performance, though factual rather fictional. Theatre has had to evolve and adapt in order to survive the advent of cinema, television and most recently the internet. In the process, some theatres and drama companies have disappeared. I think the same is likely to happen with the university lecture – some will evolve and adapt, for instance by embracing new technology, but others will disappear as students choose more effective means of acquiring knowledge and understanding.



  1. I am sure that you are right: a brilliant lecture can inspire, whereas the information carried by a mundane lecture could be acquired in several other ways. Different students will prefer different methods of acquiring knowledge, but they then need help with understanding, which is where face-to-face methods are still usually the best. This leads to the idea of the flipped classroom, catalysed by infrequent but highly inspirational lectures. But how many of us can deliver those inspirational theatrical experiences? Not as many of us as we like to think.

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