MOOC Components – The Lecture

This week, I’ll be taking a look at how different free-learning alternatives deal with the five most crucial components of a formal educational experience, including:

  • Lectures
  • Homework
  • Reading
  • Discussion
  • Assessment

While this discussion will include general observations about each of these elements, I will also use some of the classes I’m enrolled in to illustrate the diverse approaches course providers have used to innovate (or “hack”) the traditional classroom model.

As you read through these analyses, keep in mind that my exposure to multiple courses by different instructors and vendors is finite.  So it’s very possible that problems I’ve seen with some courses are well on their way to being solved in others.  As ever, I welcome your input into what else is out there that might answer some of the challenges being highlighted.

Today, we look at the most information-rich component of the class: the lecture.

In many ways, the lecture is the most unique and valuable component of any class in that it provides an expert (the instructor) the means to deliver his or her expertise (built up over years of teaching and researching a subject) in an extraordinarily efficient fashion.

I recently had first-hand experience in the amount of work needed to create a technology-delivered lecture when I produced a series of 30-minute podcasts last summer teaching various critical thinking skills, each of which took 10-12 hours to write, edit, proof, record, edit and distribute online.  In addition to giving me insight into the effort professional instructors put into generating each and every hour of their lecture content, it also demonstrated the continuing effectiveness of the lecture format as a means of transmitting a great deal of information in a short time period.

Lecture length is one of the hottest topics relating to online learning pedagogy (especially with regard to MOOCs).  For those trying to revolutionize the higher-ed experience, “Sage on the Stage” (the phrase used to describe the traditional classroom experience where a single professor expounds on a subject for 45-90 minutes at a stretch) becomes a tempting target for transformation.

Built into this desire to transform the lecture format is an assumption that today’s online learners (especially younger ones weaned on YouTube) will not have the patience to sit through an hour or more of instruction without frequent breaks and the chance to interact with the material.

Most MOOC vendors address this issue by breaking lectures into bite size pieces of varying lengths.  For example:

  • Two Coursera classes I’ve taken tend to feature 10-15 minute video segments that add up to 1-1.5 hours of total lecture per week.
  • Of the two EdX classes I’m enrolled in, one builds each course segment around a single, uninterrupted lecture that’s been averaging about a half an hour, while the other breaks things into a series of 5-15 minute talks that add up to approximately one hour of instruction.
  • Udacity classes follow a format familiar to anyone who has ever taken traditional computer-based training (CBT) which splits each class into  a series of very short (1-2 minute) segments, many of which end with a question that a student must answer before continuing.

Each of these approaches has something to recommend it, although we should not lose site of the fact that “Sage on the Stage” is still the primary format for “pre-MOOC” online learning experiences such as iTunes U which delivers straight (and uninterrupted) recordings of actual college class lectures in their original length.  And while long-time producers of audio and video college classes such as Great Courses and Modern Scholar have standardized around a strict 30- or 45-minute format, these too require the student to be a passive listener or watcher of the expert lecturing in front of the microphone or video camera.

Having listened to a number of recorded lectures over the years, and now being exposed to different MOOCs experimenting with different formats, I’m of the opinion that format matters less than the talent of the lecturer and his or her comfort level with the constraints of their chosen delivery method.

Simply put, a strong and entertaining professor comfortable with talking to groups of students of varying sizes is likely to succeed in engaging with students, regardless of whether their lectures are delivered 1-minute, 10-minutes or 90-minutes at a gulp.  But professors only at ease with one type of teaching setting (like a small intimate classroom that allows for frequent interaction with students) are likely to fail when they attempt to transfer that experience to delivery media that are less flexible (or forgiving of ambiguity).

For example, as anyone who has listened to an iTunes U “Sage on Stage” class can tell you, some professors understand they are being recorded and some don’t (with the latter making blunders such as wandering away from the mike or forgetting to repeat unheard student questions, leaving great, distracting gaps in the audio).  Similarly, programs from Great Courses can be divided between those where the professor is comfortable with the shortened 30-minutes-per-lecture format, and those don’t really know what to do when deprived of a full 50-minutes+ to say their piece.

Similarly, when MOOC run into problems (as in this situation where a professor resigned from his own class before the end), the issue is often the teacher’s comfort level (or lack thereof) with new and/or experiment formats.

So while creativity and experimentation are some of the most exciting elements of the entire MOOC revolution, success or failure of the lecture – still the primary means by which information is transmitted to the student – usually comes down to very traditional question of whether the teacher at the center of the course has the talent, skill and flexibility to pull the whole thing off.

Next Up – Homework

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3 Responses to MOOC Components – The Lecture

  1. Dave Crusoe March 18, 2013 at 3:05 pm #


    What surprised me most was the use of structures to support the lecture video. These may provide educational value beyond what traditional video or lectures are able to do.

    So, for instance, EdX contains a scrolling transcript that highlights the lecturer’s current sentence. Other online courses may contain similar coding/media structures.

    Is it your sense that these structures aid in retention and learning, or are they merely distracting?


    • DegreeofFreedom March 18, 2013 at 3:15 pm #

      I’m just getting used to the different ways each course provider structures their lecture delivery.

      That EdX scrolling transcript you mention, for example, can be seen on my Greek Hero class but not in another EdX course on Justice which just uses a straight recording of a classroom performance.

      I’m guessing that instructors are using preferred formats that are different from one another. The Greek Hero professor, for example, is stressing close reading of texts which may explain why he thinks it important that students both see and read words, even when it’s just him speaking.

      The only thing that’s been consistent across any of the MOOC courses I’ve taken so far is how inconsistent they are from one another in terms of presentation. But I guess that’s what being an experiment is all about.

  2. James Marshall March 18, 2013 at 5:14 pm #

    Tina Seelig of Stanford was more of a facilitator and linked to other short burst lectures from Stanford.
    Alberto Cairo of Miami did longer presentations, quite hard to follow, but handouts were excellent.
    Lou Broomfield of Virginia on Coursera does inspirational lectures on how things work which are very entertaining.
    The Future of online education course at Georgia Tech was a dull monotone and bullet points; for the one week before it crashed!

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