Backstory - I'm doing a taught Masters course. It's going OK. Mostly. But I've been thinking about the nature of university lecturers.
This Tweet has been doing the rounds.
HI EXCUSE ME, I just found out the the prof for this online course I’m taking *died in 2019* and he’s technically still giving classes since he’s *literally my prof for this course* and I’m learning from lectures recorded before his passing
..........it’s a great class but WHAT
— Aaron Ansuini 🪴🌱✨ (@AaronLinguini) January 20, 2021
And... I kinda agree that it might be a bit creepy, but it is obviously the future. At the moment, university students might be taught by the best lecturer on the planet. Or they might be taught by a brilliant researcher with no people skills. I was appalled to find out that my undergraduate lecturers had no teaching qualifications whatsoever. Our class of teenagers were paying huge fees to be lectured at by someone who read slides in a monotone and just told us to buy his book. Rubbish!
Right now I can go on to any video streaming site and watch the best teachers in the world give me a world-class lesson FOR FREE! With SUBTITLES! Which I can PAUSE to go to the loo! And REWATCH if I haven't grasped a point.
If you had a choice between watching Albert Einstein give a lecture or a bored TA who's mostly there to pick up freshers - which would you rather have?
Now, a good teacher isn't just about giving the lecture. As well as the admin of getting people signed up, the pastoral care, and marking assignments - they also have to teach!
Teaching isn't just lecturing. Obviously. Even the best student won't have grasped everything the lecturer said. Discussions need to be moderated. Code needs to be debugged. Theories need to be tested. Dialogue needs to happen.
Thinking back to my undergraduate degree - a billion years ago - I'm not sure that I was taught by my lecturers. Perhaps it is rose-tinted glasses. But the lectures were the scaffolding for the learning. OK, I was doing a practical degree with lots of lab work. We learned by doing, and by having patient TA's talking us through the work, and reading books.
Now, there are some downsides of video lectures.
You can't stick your hand up and interrupt the prof with your "insightful" question. But how often did you do that and get told "we'll cover that next week"? A pre-recorded lecture offers the same interactivity as most in-person lectures I attended.
Subjects might get out of date quickly. But have the fundamentals of compiler design changed in the last 10 years? What about the symbolism of Shakespeare? If the underlying theory changes - does it make sense for a hundred lecturers up and down the country to update their slides, or just to do it once?
You need to be disciplined to watch the lectures - and it's really easy to get distracted if you're at home. But, of course, no student ever slacked off a lecture with a hangover, right? And a lecture theatre full of your peers isn't exactly a distraction free environment...
In a practical degree - like nursing - you probably want someone there to show you how to physically do the thing.
I once went to an undergraduate lecture at Boston University in the USA. Whereas my UK university had a few dozen students per class, this lecture theatre was bursting at the seams with hundreds of students. I've no idea if that's typical of American institutions - but none of those students were getting a personal service.
As we round off a full year of remote lecturing, it seems obvious that there's no need for hundreds of professors each delivering individual lectures. Yes, I'm sure that your area of research is unique and students choose the university because of your reputation. But the majority of students don't care about the individual lecturer.
When I was at uni, I paid the same fees as as a friend who went to a university with much better lecturers. Of course, I went to university before YouTube. If I could have watched better lecturers, you bet your arse I would have.
So perhaps that's the new model. Watch pre-recorded lectures from the best lecturers on the planet - whether they're at your university or not. Discuss what you've learned in a class moderated by a teacher. Have practical sessions lead by a practitioner. Have the admin handled by administrators. And let researchers get on with researching.
The current model doesn't seem to be working for students or lecturers.