The ALT Conference is always a good conference to challenge your assumptions, make new discoveries and question your practice.
This year’s conference was no exception, there was plenty to make you think, question, challenge and importantly learn from others. As with many conferences the discussions outside the sessions (either on the back channel or over coffee) are just as valuable as the content of the sessions themselves. However they can’t exist in isolation, the presentations and discussions are important and complement each other.
Last year, the VLE was a dominant theme, this year the lecture came under the spotlight. Donald Clark who opened the conference with his keynote riled people and annoyed them with a blanket attack on the lecture.
There are reasons to question practice, it is often too easy to fall back on what we have always done, because we have always done it that way. However while I think Donald was right to question the validity of the lecture, his approach was to attack, dismiss and offer no serious alternatives to the current lecture format. Donald’s only serious suggestion was to produce online learning packages. Yes there are historical reasons why we have lectures in the form that they are, however this isn’t necessarily an accident of history, it could be the evolution of a useful and efficient teaching process.
Having said that I do recall from my undergraduate days one lecturer whose lectures were word for word taken from his book. I bought the book and never went to the lectures. I guess at least I had a choice, though the book was very expensive as I recall! Though that was some time ago and you should never rely on personal experiences to reflect what is happening now across the whole sector.
After Donald’s keynote I was part of a session that gave delegates at ALT-C an opportunity to discuss and debate the keynote. One of the issues we did discuss was the impact learning spaces have. If we have lecture theatres then we have lectures and lecture theatres make it challenging to do other kinds of activities. So we hear lecturers saying they do want to do different kinds of stuff, but the space prevents it. Though it was interesting to hear from others that had created new types of learning spaces, lecturers complaining and wanting lecture theatres back. Sometimes it’s the space, sometimes it’s the practitioner.
The following day, Dave White, from TALL, gave a passionate defence of the lecture.
Dave with his extensive experience with TALL is certainly well qualified to understand the benefits and limitations of online delivery. However he discussed during his talk the importance of the social benefit that physical lectures provide for a community of learners. This is though not impossible to recreate online, is very challenging. Dave demonstrated through his delivery and content that the lecture in itself can be a useful way to stimulate discussion and debate.
I should also at this point congratulate Dave and the TALL team on winning the ALT Learning Technologist of the Year team award.
In my opinion for some learners the lecture can be a useful method of learning. The problem arises when you start to rely heavily on the lecture as your main method of delivery. Using a lecture can be great for learners, only using lectures is not. It’s the same with any kind of learning activity, just using one type of process is not going to be effective, for most learners it will become boring and tedious.
There are other challenges facing the sector with the question of whether universities should focus on research or teaching and whether we should split the sector up into research universities and teaching universities along models found elsewhere in the world.
Another challenge is obviously funding and the inevitable cuts we are facing over the next few years. It will be seen as easy and “efficient” to give lectures to hundreds of undergraduates rather than break them down into small groups for other activities in order to save money.
Overall the conference did succeed in getting the delegates taking about the issues, the challenges and the possible future role of the lecture. I do believe as learning technologists we should question the effectiveness of not only what we do, but also look at existing practices to see if they are still valid and useful.