What's the point of a lecturer?

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.

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Subjects might get out of date quickly.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.

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7 thoughts on “What's the point of a lecturer?”

  1. Jack says:

    I broadly agree with some points. Speaking as a medieval historian - yes things do change a lot and they have changed a lot in the last decade. Much of the common understanding of the medieval period is steeped in nationalistic views from the 19th century and a lot of what we do now is to unpick that so that it can no longer be co-opted by far right racist groups. That is just one small aspect. Another: we are no longer sure that there even were Anglo-Saxons. It's still in debate but while there is some evidence for invasions by Germanic peoples there is a lot of valid critiques and counter-evidence. This debate would not have been taught ten years ago.

    These are small and specific points and ignores even new archaeological or other discoveries but I am sure other subject areas have similarly moved on. I think there are more arguments that each university should have a unique spread of skills, modules, degrees, and centres which dovetail together. Perhaps a survey course could be useful across several universities but beyond those early first year, first term modules I am doubtful they would be of value. I would suggest that if they were we would be in danger of very much watering down the quality that we offer. I think that the diversity of education, as long as it is of a good standard, is very important.

    Finally, I think that the most valuable time I have with students is when we get to chat one-to-one. When we teach a lot of thought goes into joining up the lectures and seminars and this carries across to the chats with smaller groups. The seminars and smaller chats stem from the lectures and are constructed around them. If there are only a few 'star' lecturers on, say, British Colonial History then students are receiving a narrower, and poorer, education. This will end up with certain views and approaches, usually from well-resourced universities who over-represent the richer elements of society, being privileged over others. This is perhaps less important in some subjects than others but I think in the study of our past is potentially dangerous.

    Sorry if this is rambly but it was written in haste. I think some of the points you make a valid and perhaps rather than less lecturers we need more lectures being made more widely available. I have no A-Levels and only got into university thanks to finding freely available lectures and other resources online about a decade ago. These type of resources can also supplement students attending less well resourced universities and just the general public!

  2. Helen says:

    Your description of a Brown university lecture theatre packed to the gills with students is familiar to me from Germany, and clearly that's not quality teaching. I agree with Jack's points above and think the debate also has to consider the following:

    • Students tell us that live in-person lectures have a really important function in getting to know other student on the same course. On a big undergrad course, students may not meet other students on the course in any other way, because they'll be broken up into smaller groups for seminars.
    • A pedagogically valuable lecture has to have some live element. This can be done via fancy digital interactive tools, or simple question and answer or breakout groups - but if your students aren't being engaged, then whether you are recorded or live in person makes no difference.
    • I wouldn't agree that watching a TED talk or Harvard lecture can substitute for a lecture by your own lecturer in all instances. Terry is wrong in thinking that course content doesn't change quickly - it does! Courses about e.g. digital learning, public health and the global far right will have changed radically in the past six months. And more importantly, the lecture will be embedded into an overall course structure that guides a particular kind of student towards specific learning outcomes. What a (much fancier and cleverer) prof at Harvard is trying to achieve with her lecture won't be the same as what I am trying to achieve with mine, even if the titles sound similar. I might point my students to someone else's lecture for reference, but wouldn't expect it to replace my own lecture. Jack makes a similar point.
    • Everyone has access to TED talks, but until the pandemic hit, live public lectures were still extremely popular. Lectures are a valued form of entertainment and engagement inside and outside universities. My undergraduate students often tell me they are their favourite part of a programme. And what's wrong with sitting back and enjoying an expert break it down for you? On the other hand, my student reps say they HATE recorded lectures and feel they are an extra burden to watch.
  3. Wish this could be the new way forward. I'm constantly scanning youtube and bitesize for lessons on things for my kids. Like doing the multiplication column method with missing numbers. Can someone create a video lesson of this please for my 7yr old!

    1. @edent says:

      I think I had a brain fart. Pretty sure it was Boston Uni, not Brown I visited...! Corrected in the post. Ta!

      1. Vasya says:

        My pleasure! My Providence pride compelled me to say something. Love your blog, btw.

  4. Marcus Downing says:

    When lectures are all just media, I worry about student's motivations. At the ripe old age of middle, I'm quite happy to watch lectures on YouTube just because I find something interesting. I have tabs on my screen right now about quantum mechanics, about the design of Apple's M1 chips, about upcoming rockets, about how to write a compelling novel ... things that will never have anything to do with my job, but are just interesting.

    Did I have that attention span as a university student? Without the physical process of going to a lecture room, I'm not sure how seriously I would have taken any of it. I'd probably have been tempted to pause my lectures to go play a game or something. Kids are dumb. And smart. At the same time.


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