Is the Lecture Good for Learning?

In an earlier blog post, I summarized and analyzed a lecture that can be found online inside a “MOOC”–a massive open online course. Since lectures are a primary resource within such online courses, and since so many people are jumping up and down calling the MOOC ‘the future of education,’ I think it’s worth asking the pesky question: Is this kind of lecture (which is not at all uncommon) good for learning?

Consider the listener.

I have an advanced degree. I can not only decode this a standard, even very good academic lecture: I can decompose its formal elements. But some degree of training went into this knack: it represent the self-awareness of a frequent participant in these solemn rites–aka lectures.

But I am not the target audience for this presentation. And therein lies a problem.

The listener–who is not screened, who self-selects and self-enrolls, with no prior criteria, with no offer of pre-requisite knowledge–is in the arduous position of determining all this for herself.

This is a course intended for anyone anywhere in the world who cares to take it. The main “guidance”–though it seems laughable to call it that–comes from the students' peers. Presumably some may be able to decode this array of quotations, references, historical events, texts, genres and authors. But will enough students be able to decode well enough to guide the rest? And is there some reason that the expert speaking feels no responsibility to do so? I cannot claim to know.

It is possible, however, to spell out clearly:

Why This Kind of Presentation Is NOT an Optimal Starting Point for a Course.

People will differ, but I would think two things would be absolute minimum requirements for a discourse orienting learners towards a course or learning experience to follow.
  1. What is the topic? What is the course about?
  2. What will I learn–and to what standard? What will I be able to do, or to do better? Measured how?
  • Is the topic cooking or crockery? Art or computer programming?
  • Will I learn to make a stew, or read tea leaves? To draw the human form, or to print “Hello, World!” in the python programming language?
After listening to this expert lecture, does the listener have any notion–especially the listener who is untutored, may speak English as a second language, may not have finished high school, may have no other college experience, or a quite different one–of these two things?

Topic Is a Pretty Basic Kind of Thing.

The distinction between topic and comment is central to the study of language: the fields of semantics, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics all have need of it. College instructors regularly criticize student papers for lacking a clear topic. Hence we would easily imagine that any fine college instructor could produce ten or twelve minutes of consecutive talk with a clear topic.

Now consider the first or pre-first lecture in Coursera’s course on Fantasy and Science Fiction.

The topic is not defined. The very meaning of the course title is not explained.

And what is to be learned–the learning objective, as it is technically named in circles which give names to such things?

What Can the Learner Do After the Lecture that She Could Not Do (or Do as Well) Before?
  • The learner may recall some etymologies.
  • The learner may recall some facts about buildings and folk tales.
  • The learner may be able to name some authors and fictions, might or might not know the authors for the fictions mentioned.
  • The learner may recall the era in which these fictions were written.
  • The learner may recall the names of some experts mentioned without knowing who they are, when they lived, what made them experts, or in what their expertise consists.
  • The learner may be able to explain the meanings the lecturer gives to these fictions and tales.
What the learner cannot do is
  • to discover these genealogies, facts and interpretations for herself;
  • nor determine the principles and procedures which form these genealogies, facts and interpretations;
  • nor determine what makes these relevant and other similar items not relevant.
Mimicry vs. Ability.

In short, the learner can mimic the kind of knowledge presented. What she cannot do is:
  • to avail herself of the know-how that would generate such knowledge,
  • nor indeed to grasp why all this might even count as knowledge in the first place,
  • except in the trivial sense of this information being important to another, of it being historical information that can be recalled in order to attest to one’s learnedness.
In the absence of such ability and principles, all information reduces to trivia.

In short, all the learner can do, at best, is to reproduce the signs of being cultured and educated without understanding or being able to criticize the foundations of these signs.

The Voice of Authority

This seems to me a grave disservice to the learner, but not an uncommon one. This type of presentation seems more likely to produce bafflement than illumination.

This kind of presentation is simply argument from authority: I know all this stuff, and I’m an expert–I’m at the head of the classroom, I’m lecturing, so clearly I’m the one who knows–take it from me.

There is no sense in this presentation–and here it lacks features which other academic lectures have–of:
  • an historical conversation,
  • a debate,
  • examining and adjudicating among differing viewpoints,
  • exploring standards of proof.
For instance:
  • Is Marlowe debating with Antiquity?
  • Is Auden's idea about Cinderella a response to anyone or anything?
  • Is "The Monkey's Paw" a response to Frankenstein?
  • Are all these perspectives the same? Or different?
There is only an expert, an authority, the voice of authority–and the stylistic and generic conventions which produce and support that voice. It’s not a question of blaming this professor. This voice is not a person. This voice is a rhetorical effect and an institutional privilege.

And now we come closer to the stylistic and organizational and sociological traits of the genre known as the academic lecture.

What the Learner Does Learn.

The message is clear.
  • You, dear learner, must discern what the topic is. It will play hide-and-seek. I will not name it. To name the topic is a vulgarism. If you cannot determine the topic, you must surely be unfit to listen to my discourse.
  • You may not gather the hidden principles which unite my pronouncements. You may not know what makes me right and others wrong. You must trust.
  • And you may not be given to understand why these sentences are meaningful and relevant–and others are not. You must hang on an expert’s wisdom until you learn. I will not tell you how long that is. I will not tell you how you can know if you have learned.
  • For all these things, you must remain dependent on me: the one who knows.
This does not seem to me an adequate basis for a democratic notion of learning: dependency, secrecy, discretion, authority, trust, guesswork.

The MOOC and the Lecture.

I wish I could say this lecture were unique. Alas, it is not. And my other Coursera MOOC experience–limited though it was to only a few such lectures before I gave up–was similar.
  • If this is the notion of learning that the MOOC will offer, I can see little hope that much learning could take place.
  • Browsing, perhaps. Disintered curiosity, maybe. Dependency and trust in authority–which we need altogether less of, yes.
  • But the concerted effort to grow, to change, to aquire new habits, skills or dispositions, critical attention, the ability to govern one’s own experience, to judge for oneself, to acquire the standards one wishes to acquire: these seem to me very unlikely outcomes indeed.
Not all academic lectures are exactly like this. Many lectures invite the learner to participate, to explore the principles at work, to question, to occupy disparate viewpoints, to test, to doubt, to make choices, to find her own path.

But many academic lectures follow exactly these rituals and gestures I’ve identified. And whether these lecture are in a classroom or online, I believe we need fewer such lectures, not more.

If this genre and ritual are to become the basis for widely-distributed educational content, we will find ourselves in an even sorrier state than we are now.

Who Do We Want To Be, Anyway?

Much academic discourse of this type seems consciously organized to maintain a cultural distinction between the expert and the neophyte: not to shrink the distance but to maintain and maximize it.

Yet some universities of international stature feel quite serene about putting their names on such lectures. Is it possible that many of those involved in higher learning are so immersed within its culture and values that they cannot see how very ineffective some of its most hallowed rituals and genres–such as the lecture–can be?

Mind you: we all have seen terrific ten-to-twenty-minute presentations.
  • Many of the TED talks are quite inspiring. They are tilted towards persuasion more than information. But they engage, can be followed and are more than lumps of unlabeled information and ideas.
  • Many online video demonstrations simply straightforwardly show some procedure–solving a certain kind of equation. That seems to me practical, useful and unobjectionable.
But the more universities open their doors, the more we see the internal reasons higher ed is in crisis: it’s not external enemies.

In the famous words of Pogo: we have met the enemy, and he is us.

–Edward R. O'Neill


  1. I came upon this by chance two months after you wrote it. I am adding this blog to my by now huge collection of posts on MOOCs and Coursera but must tell you that this is good stuff. You are getting to the nub of the crisis in a way that no-one else, as far as I can tell , is doing.

    1. Thanks! With most MOOCs, the more you see the more depressed you get.


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