Is the College Lecture Dead, Dying, or Just Lying Low?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The January 24, 2012 article by Jeff Young, Lecture Fail? in The Chronicle of Higher Education was an open call for students and professors to "fire up their Web camera" to tell The Chronicle if the lecture still worked for them.

The students in this video, at least, are adamant that the lecture is an outdated mode of teaching. According to those featured, lectures are often poorly executed and designed. They are boring, don't hold students' attention, can be redundant, lack interactivity, aren't engaging, and may even be insulting to students' intelligence. How has the once almighty lecture fallen to such depths of ineptitude?

Where the Lecture Format Fails
According to, a lecture is, "a speech read or delivered before an audience or class, especially for instruction or to set forth some subject:: a lecture on Picasso's paintings."

The first thing to realize about the lecture is that it really hasn't changed much since the middle ages. One or two individuals presenting prepared remarks to a large audience has long been viewed as the most efficient mode for delivering information to the tabulae rasae of students' minds. However, two things have changed that contribute to making the lecture seem defunct: presentation technology and the evolution of students' minds.

Prior to PowerPoint, digital projectors, and even photocopies, the entirety of a lecture was conveyed orally and through the relatively small amount of information that an instructor could transcribe on a chalkboard. Digital presentation tools have changed that radically. Instructors can now not only share the entire text of their lecture if they are so inclined, but they can also enhance that material with audio, video, still images, or interactive media.

When students had no alternative but to sit patiently and absorb information as it was lectured at them, the lecturer was the central figure of education. Advanced communication tools have, in fact de-centered the instructor in education. This is particularly true if, as the students in the above video indicate, teachers simply read the PowerPoint slides. Today's learners are more than capable of reading notes for themselves and pressing play on embedded videos or audio files. The value of an instructor in a digitally enhanced lecture is to provide information beyond the scope of the media presentation. Adding context, working through examples, sharing relevant experiences, or providing an enhancement of the material on the screen represent the ways in which the educator can add value to their lecture. Content dissemination that is a repetition of the information that students can digest on their own is insulting to their intelligence.

Student intelligence and the ability to access and interpret digital media are the other things that have changed, making the lecture obsolete. Students' brains are literally being rewired by their access to digital media, portable electronics, and game play (, Jan. 2009). The implication of this change for the lecture-based classroom is that students sitting in a lecture hall may actually be able to decode the information on a PowerPoint slide before the instructor could even finish reading it. Beyond that, they have a preference for being able to learn at their own pace by pausing, rewinding, or re-watching some or all of a lecture. This habit is ingrained in them by digital media players, digital video recorders (DVRs), and computers, and it is a preference that makes complete sense in a world where hundreds of different inputs can be competing for a student's attention at any given moment. Sitting for 60 or 90 minutes of uninterrupted, non-interactive listening simply does not make sense to today's learners and does not reflect the reality in which they live.

What If the Lecture is Dead?
While the lecture may not be in the grave yet, it certainly seems to be experiencing some death throes. Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun, when talking about his free education startup Udacity, described his shock at realizing that posting his artificial intelligence course lectures online caused a dramatic reduction in the number of students who attended his class in person – at Stanford (Hsu, Jan. 25, 2012). This realization prompted him to start Udacity an online education site which began delivering free computer science courses to hundreds of thousands of users in February and provides some insight into what the future of education may look like.

Given the success of Udacity and Khan Academy it seems very likely that all education will have some digital components soon. These two sites take the lecture and break it down into small, easily-digestible pieces that students can watch and re-watch on their own, and they link those mini lectures to actual exercises and quizzes that help the learners to master the concepts being taught. The idea behind these models is that students are able to master the basic concepts and then work one-on-one, or in small groups with the instructor to clarify any questions, strengthen their understanding, and apply the knowledge they have learned.

The Implications
If this model is applied to all classes in the near future, as appears possible, the entire conception of what education is will change. Teachers (with support) will become responsible for designing their own content following this model by recording their own videos, possibly through the just announced TED-Ed site, and flipping their classrooms to provide students with one-on-one enrichment of the basic skills they will teach themselves.

This concept not only improves formal education, but also makes informal, self-directed learning a cultural value and expectation that every student can benefit from throughout their entire lifetime. We live in a time where the world changes so rapidly that information you learn today is outdated tomorrow. Being able to teach yourself is an invaluable skill, and the death of the lecture may lead to the birth of a more intelligent, motivated, and self-reliant society than we ever believed possible.

Death to the lecture!

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