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Virtual instructors

A university lecture involves a group of students listening passively to an instructor to gain knowledge. Spoken interactions between student and instructor, particularly in large groups, is minimal. A much-posed question is why cannot the instructor here be substituted by a book, webpage, CD rom or DVD? It is a good question and one that I respond to with agreement: lectures are not an indispensible part of university instruction. Students also apparently agree, with attendance rates at many lectures plummeting in recent years, at many universities, to between 30-50% of total enrollments. (David Romer, Journal of Economic Perspectives, (subscription only), 1993 found that small US schools averaged 25% absenteeism, medium-sized institutions 34% while large universities had 40% on a typical day).

Moreover, material is, in most institutions, routinely placed on DVDs or web pages for use by off-campus groups, for distance education and to be frank, by those who don’t attend lectures. This does not do academics out of their job. Instead they are potentially liberated to pursue the more crucial role of facilitating small group discussions, computer laboatories and tutorials where emphasis is on learning rather than teaching.

This trend offends a few traditional academics and certainly runs into major problems with university bean-counters who identify implied rises in staffing costs dure to reduced student/staff ratios. But it does not worry me at all since I have long believed that such small groups make most academic sense and that the traditional lecture, passive-learning format is better suited for those who are already quite well-versed in a field.

These remarks occur to me because I am currently myself listening to a series of 24 lectures on ‘The Will to Power’ by Friedrich Nietzsche’ that are provided in DVD format by The Teaching Company. They are a stunningly high-quality product in every respect.

  • The instructors are Professors Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins from the University of Texas at Austin. This husband and wife team are Nietzsche experts- both are recognised scholars in this area with numerous books and articles. They are also good teachers.
  • The technical quality of the presentations is sound if a little unimaginative. One suspects more could have been done. But in terms of using photographic and other visual material the material is much better, in my experience, than those provided in a standard lecture. The accompaning written notes are a more-than-adequate substitute for notes placed on a webpage. They include essential and supplementary readings and questions for discussion.
  • The cost is low – around $100Aust. for a complete program of lectures. This is less than 10% of the cost of any standard ‘live’ university unit.
  • The material can be reused and a viewer can repeat segments or whole classes as they seek.

The classes themselves are a lot of fun although they are mainly introductory and pitched at a relatively junior level. They are not a systematic survey of Nietzsche’s philosophy – is that possible anyway? – but they do provide a sound introduction to his thought by distinguished scholars who do a fine job. The DVDs and class notes could replace a lecturer at a university who could then turn to the more important tasks of ensuring that learning has occurred through small group discussion. They could also complement a more standard lecture presentation though I, for one, would feel pressure competing with teaching of this quality.

I am interested in using material of this type in economics and finance classes at my university. So far I have listened only to Legacies of Great Economists which is available only in audio format and which I did not greatly enjoy. There are a variety of economics, finance, business, statistics and American economic history units available, see here, all pitched at a junior undergraduate level. As a market for such materials develops quality will improve.

9 comments to Virtual instructors

  • Rabee

    >These remarks occur to me because I am currently >myself listening to a series of 24 lectures

    Had they been giving lectures at La Trobe would you have gone to their live lectures instead of listening to the tapes?

    >The instructors are … both are recognised
    >scholars in
    >this area with numerous books…

    Why don’t you just read the books?

    A well written book dominates the very best live as well as taped lecture. But if the issue is say the
    “economic way of thinking,” then a live lecture is perhaps better than written material because it helps initiate the student into a culture and its tastes.

  • hc

    Rabee, I might not have had time. An advantage of receiving lectures in this format is that I can listen when I choose.

    I have been reading Nietzsche himself since 1971, particularly Zarathustra. But of course I enjoy listening to people more expert. I might eventually read the books of these writers.

    On your last para. What if the book itself was read aloud by someone with appreciation of its contents? Would the written word still dominate? It might in a fiels like maths but in others I don’t think so.

    I am interested in the fact that in the 19th century people commonly read new books to each other aloud. I recall Richard and Cosima Wagner reading Nietzsche’s early books to one and other. Modern media, TV etc, have ended this form of infotainment.

    The lectures here are commentaries not just expositions – I get a lot from them. And something extra from watching and listening.

    Bu the way I did listen to some recorded maths classes by The Teaching Company – they were not as successful as these.

  • lesleym

    As in other areas of information distribution in the public sphere, do you see a problem inherent with the virtual lecture system, that is, the greater the number of people exposed to this system, the more likely it will be that only a very small proportion of the different views about the subject of the lectures will end up ever being considered by the students/hearers/viewers? IOW, how many listeners could Andrew Fraser infect were his lectures distributed to a larger public eg via the internet?

    I personally tend to think this problem has parallels with the monoculture system in agriculture with its attendant limitations upon genetic diversity.

    OTOH, if you are really wanting to change the worldview, then I would agree with rabee, that cultural change only occurs through live person to person transmission.

  • hc

    Lesleym, I think you identify a real problem. There are claimed to be systematic biases in wiki for example. I notice while working on my blog that the same story in the NYT can be endlessly repeated around the web in various guises.

    And markets for information work very imperfectly so you cannot assume competition will resolve things. Like buying wine, buying by reputation is a good guide but, even then, the chances of getting an Andrew Fraser is always a possibility.

    I certainly don’t think live presentations are on their way out but I think much core material in economics can be taught virtually. The interesting issues arise when students try to understand and critique this material and this is where I think academic attention should focus – in small ‘liberal arts college’ style groups,.

  • P.A. Coplay

    I have two comments relating to this.

    First, I think the dangers of students getting one view are much lower now than they ever have been – even if audio/video tapes of another lecturer are used. This is because the WWW has lowered the cost of obtaining and (importantly) supplying information. Students who are content to recycle the textbook will report one (without accepting one way or the other) view in class, just as they always have. Those a bit more inquiring will seek further and it is now much easier to seek detailed accounts further before. In economics previously there were dominant textbooks but a student can now draw on much more than before which is great for the inquiring student. For example, in Competition Policy, it is arguable that the Chicago School, which has never had much influence here, would have more influence if introduced now (than in the 1970s where it made little impact in the dominant SCP view that continued until fairly recently) as it would be much easier for potentially receptive lawyers and academics to access their arguments in a timely way (though if someone can give me a better argument why this School was never influential here, despite extensive influence here, I would be interested)

    Compared to pre WWW days it is much easier now to find accounts in easily accessible views of competing views in economics. Our job will continue to be to get (the brighter) students to develop the skills to critically analyse (using the economic way of thinking) any argument that comes up.

    Second (and on the other hand). Drawing heavily on extensive material developed elsewhere – even where the proposed focus shifts to critically discussing material developed elsewhere – carries a danger of free riding by both the instructer and students. Part of the benefit (to the instructer) is developing a deeper unstanding of the material through working through the material themselves (including through making mistakes). And lectures (unlike books) can contain all the intermediate steps and side comments which in part result from the lecturer developing their own understanding through developing material from scratch. The danger of free-riding is here now but it is probably mainly an issue for the core courses which have other constraints preventing it from being a big problem.

    My own experience is that basing discussions too heavily around presented material in the form described is most likely to work with a critical mass of either bright or particularly articulate/experienced students – which can occur under the present system.

  • P.A. Coplay

    Further thoughts: I think a more precise version of the argument trying to be made in the previous post was as follows:

    It has always been possible to arrange tutorials along the lines suggested using other forms of source materials – reading from papers and the like – yet in economics at any rate tutorials have not developed along these lines. Before moving to making more extensive use of this new technology, careful consideration needs to be made of the reasons why tutorials or lectures to honours classes are not all currently this way – my comments above I guess describe conditions when this did happen in some classes – and then an explanation of how the new technology would overcome these specific difficulties would be of considerable interest! When it works it is great (and was lucky one year to have three tutorials in a row more or less like this) – it just has never come close to this very often.

  • hc

    p.a,c. I think LesleyM has a point. You are right that there will be more competition but the easiest paths to knowledge might be the ones pursued. Look at wiki. People routinely go to it for info because it takes two clicks of a mouse and costs zero. An error there can be quickly amplified. The advantage of face-to-face is variety which provides balance.

    My own view is that these technologies are interesting and valuable but not the whole hog.

  • Lucy Tartan

    The DVDs and class notes could replace a lecturer at a university who could then turn to the more important tasks of ensuring that learning has occurred through small group discussion.
    With respect Harry, there’s no guarantee that the lecturer will be able to turn to directing small tutorials. He or she may instead be asked to take on more subjects and be responsible for larger numbers of students. My experience suggests the tutorial as we’ve known it is on the way out.

  • hc

    Lucy, I was being normative – this is the way I think things should go. I favour using technology to get rid of large, fairly useless lectures. In economics and maths most learning seems to occur through ‘small group’ discussion and ‘doing’ rather than listening. But I agree, universities will be pressured to use technology primarily to cut costs. And from this viewpoint competition between institutions will be destructive.

    By the way Lucy I like your blog and will visit.