Technology’s two-edged educational sword

Well, here’s a fun little piece from the LA Times (cleverly titled “The iPod took my seat”) about how colleges and universities are trying to deal with record levels of class-skipping enabled by the professors posting lecture notes online, along with audio and video recordings of lectures. Fascinating. The “system” helps students create their own learning schedules and then complains that people aren’t attending lectures.

“Too much online instruction is a bad thing,” said Terre Allen, a communication studies scholar and director of a center that provides teaching advice to professors at Cal State Long Beach.

This last term, Allen experimented with posting extensive lecture notes online for her undergraduate course, “Language and Behavior.” One goal was to relieve students of the burden of furiously scribbling notes, freeing them to focus on the lectures’ substance.

Yet the result, Allen said, was that only about one-third of her 154 students showed up for most of the lectures. In the past, when Allen put less material online, 60% to 70% of students typically would attend.

When it comes to lectures with enrollment in the hundreds, universities usually don’t compel undergraduates to show up, or even lower their grades for poor attendance.

“This is one of the things that divide universities from high schools,” Allen said. “Students are expected to be personally responsible.”

Still, Allen said, to curb “the absentee approach to college,” she won’t put her lecture notes online this term.

So young people attending school are unbundling the educational process to suit their schedules. What the heck is wrong with that? Too much online instruction is a bad thing? I don’t think so.

I mean, isn’t the point of advanced education to actually get an education? What difference does it make how that takes place?

The article notes that the best students always attend class and usually sit in the front row. Well, good for them. I suppose the inference is that there is a causal relationship here and that if everybody attended lectures like the smart kids did, their grades would be higher. This is unbelievably naïve, imo, and fails to take into consideration outside pressures on kids who aren’t gifted with scholarships or wealthy parents. Grrrr.

More importantly, this clearly indicates to me an opportunity for higher education — one that could expand enrollment without taxing physical resources. Why not explore the opportunity rather than circle the wagons?


  1. Terry,
    I’ve been hugely influenced by your ideas and for months have been writing about how the training and education industries will be hammered by these forces.
    These industries face a very similar challenge to the one the mass media re facing — uncannily similar, in fact. I think this validates much of what you say: your observations on the effects of unbundling are consistent with what we see in our industry. My start-up is an example of an alternative approach and hopefully a glimpse into something of the future.

    Thx for the insights.

    [Posted by This is added while posting a message to avoid misuse of WebWarper: see Example of using WebWarper: ]

  2. Fascinating stuff, Ken. Thanks for the links.

  3. Something else to consider about that “sitting in the front row” business leading to higher grades. In many cases, sure, the sort of personality who learns best from hearing lectures (auditory learners) and is also exceptionally diligent AND fortunate enough to be in good health (physically and mentally), as well as financially secure enough to never have to take an extra shift, or get some sleep after working very late the night before; well, yeah. They get good grades. However, my experience at college suggests another factor: the human nature of professors. EVERY subject on the university level has a degree of subjectivity in grading. Yes, even maths and sciences — deciding whether or not an answer deserves partial credit is subjective. In the humanities, where many grades come from researching and writing, this is even more apparent. Well, human nature applies to professors, too. If someone is on the borderline, if there’s a judgment call to be made, if something could really go one way or the other, who would YOU decide to give the benefit of the doubt? The student whose face you can’t even picture, or the one who sits on the front row, writing down every word you say as though it were holy writ? People are people, and we all have egos. I am very much a visual learner. Give me a book on the subject, and I’ll be ready to teach it myself in a couple of days. Lectures never helped me learn, and I deeply resented classes with attendance policies that were unnecessary. I got a C instead of an A in an English class once because I had five absences. The max was three. The extra two cost me a letter grade EACH. This was in a class in my field, so much so that there was not one thing on the syllabus I hadn’t read BEFORE the class started. The stupidity there makes me angry to this day.…and it’s been years.

  4. The problem was created eons ago when the economics of large universities caused them to create large classes that were “lecture” driven. These classes make no use of the interactive dynamic that makes physical presence meaningful. If they can’t do better, I say podcast them all. I’ll continue to seek my education from small colleges where the professor and the classroom still matter.

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