Are university lectures dinosaurs or sharks? Innovation in higher education

Hope Reese claimed in a piece for The Atlantic from last year that “Lectures Didn’t Work in 1350—and They Still Don’t Work Today”, while another article by Abigail Walthausen pleaded “Don’t Give Up on the Lecture”. Less defensively, Frank Furedi wrote elsewhere “In praise of the university lecture and its place in academic scholarship”, a laudatory genre, that ‘in praise of…’, which seems quaintly antique in its lack of that modern form of cynicism. Away from this fray of academic journalism (or clickbait in the case of The Atlantic), there is a different kind of overview report, Horizon Scanning – What will Higher Education look like in 2020 (by the UK Higher Education International Unit and Leadership Foundation for Higher Education). It notes that across the board,

“looming obsolescence in the face of seismic shifts is the theme; it is considered absurd by some that the method of university teaching has not changed much since the University of Bologna opened in 1088. The message is that universities must either embrace rapid change or it will be visited upon them, with prejudice.” [p. 10]

Much of this is futurology – that is to say, marketing. There’s no way to tell for sure. We can consider the formal properties of this situation though, and make some approaches via analogy. In this manner we can make some suggestions that if it isn’t wrong, that it is by no means guaranteed to be right. Neil Gaiman quotes Douglas Adams on the book:

“I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them.”

Who is to say that university lectures are simply redundant because of their long history? The theorist of technology Kevin Kelly makes the point that unlike biological species, technologies don’t go extinct. As he says, “technologies are forever”. Our zoology of learning and technology is getting increasingly complicated here, but the point is to be made that while the university lecture has been around for all that time, it hasn’t remained static. To speak of the university lecture as a monolithic form to whom all subscribe is nonsense. Lectures are incredibly diverse in their formats, and depend on any number of things such as the lecturer, the location, the learning culture, the content, the facilities available, and so on. As ever, on this topic there is pro, there is contra, and there is the truth.

The Gartner Hype cycle is worth invoking here. This is a graphical tool developed by the eponymous consulting firm, to represent the development and adoption of new technologies. It places these technologies within a social, market, economic context. It allows us to see not just the actual situation of these technologies (early adopters, increased market-share, full proliferation, etc.) but also the talk about these technologies. It distances us somewhat from the marketing aspect, the crude pro and contra of the form peddled by The Atlantic. Les Schmidt applied the idea to MOOCs in 2012, coming up with the following image.

This isn’t too far from the reality as we see it today. The Pearson report Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States (infographic of the report as pdf here) indicates something similar. In evaluating the future of higher education, in whatever form, we have to be aware that those new developments that come along may initially be touted as the supposed “killer app” to totally replace/transform/disrupt higher education are actually going to be but one new element in a complex and ever-changing higher education ecology.

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