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.