how college is like choosing between going to the movies and watching Netflix

The ASEE newsletter has an article about MOOCs that I found particularly interesting. I am not interested in teaching a MOOC, but this article has  general implications for those interested in flipped teaching or teaching with technology, two big trends in higher education. The full article is here [Link].

A not-so-surprising conclusion is that teaching MOOCs is not at all like lecturing, even when literally delivering lectures online. Recording a 50 minute lecture for a MOOC will make for an unpopular online course. Instead, short segments of 6-9 minutes are ideal. Yes, we are teaching to the YouTube generation.

To captivate such a diverse audience, “it’s good to have bite-sized content,” advises Whiteman, who has distilled basic mechanics into short modules and “edu-bytes” of no more than 10 minutes. Armando Fox, professor in residence in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, reorganized his 90-minute lecture into 8-to-12-minute video segments or “lecturelets” for his software engineering MOOC, each covering a topic with one or two self-check questions. Evidence from the field suggests shorter is sweeter. New data from edX, a nonprofit MOOC provider created by MIT and Harvard, for instance, put the optimal length for lecturelets at 6 to 9 minutes. Median viewing time, where half the students watch the entire clip, peaks at 6 minutes, then falls rapidly. The edX data also reveal that mixing talking heads with computer screenshots or slides is more engaging than screenshots with voice- overs. [emphasis mine]

I had heard about breaking the lecture down into pieces, but I had previously heard (a few years ago before MOOCs took over) that 15-20 minutes was ideal. Six to nine minute lecturelets are much shorter and a lot more work per minute of lecture. Teaching difficult content while telling a story in 6 minute chunks requires a lot of skill. Not surprisingly, it takes an eternity to create the MOOC equivalent of a single lecture:

 MOOCs require “a huge amount of work,” says UC Davis’ Owens, who devotes two full days preparing each 60- to 90-minute lecture. To maximize his instruction time, he writes eight pages covering not only exactly what he will say, including jokes, but what he will draw. It takes eight hours to record the lecture, stopping, starting, and rewriting as necessary. The editing crew needs 32 hours to synchronize the audio, screencasts, and video into a complete lecture. Online education veteran Autar Kaw, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of South Florida, estimates that it takes five to 10 hours to produce each hourlong lecture video beyond the time needed to develop textbooks, simulations, and real-world problems.  [emphasis mine]

This sounds unappealing to me. I don’t want teaching prep time to cut into research time or time with students. A more traditional way of teaching can be done effectively with much less work (plus cornier, more spontaneous jokes!). Since so many universities expect professors to be more adept with research than teaching, I don’t see MOOCs the way of the future unless incentives radically change.

I don’t mean to be cynical. The fact of the matter is that I want to be an excellent teacher, even if it takes a bit of time. I try to try a few new things with teaching every semester to improve my skills. Progress is steady and slow. Also, as an introvert, I feel like my personality needs some time to adapt to new teaching styles, because entertaining a room full of students does not come naturally to me. Some professors may simply not be the right fit for teaching online or flipping. But despite personality issues and the lack of incentives, moving toward more online teaching and flipping may be doable as long as professors can move at a tortoise-like pace to make this happen.

I try to turn a lecture into a story, something that feeds into the narrative I tell the class over the course of the semester. Students can better figure out why a theorem, result, or example is important if I connect it with the story of what we are doing in class that day as well as over the semester (and yes, it took me a few years to figure this out!). I suppose I teach with a series of “lecturelets,” but they are probably longer than 6-9 minutes long.

In general, professors have and will continue to adapt to new technologies and teaching styles so long as it doesn’t take 20 hours to prep for a single class. It has been my experience that anything other than lecture takes a lot more preparation time (there is a reason why lecturing is popular!). There are only so many hours in a day.

My favorite part of the article compares teaching to watching movies:

USF’s Kaw still prefers the “social experience” of the traditional classroom but says it’s like choosing between going to the movies and watching Netflix: “I like both.”

Have MOOCs affected how you teach?


5 responses to “how college is like choosing between going to the movies and watching Netflix

  • Jon Awbrey

    THE BIG IDEA in the 60s was to replace 20 professors of X with one Celebrity Professor of X on CCTV broadcast to a lecture hall of 600 students and then have 20 teaching assistants give tests and grade homework. It made poor quality education then, so let’s multiply it by a million and try it again.

    That always works …

  • Laura McLay

    Vincent Knight commented on this post on Google+:

    I also found a blog post about a scathing article about MOOCs that is worth reading:

  • Dan Black

    I too read about the 20 minute attention span (this was while doing my PG teaching certificate). I suspect that the lower attention span for videos is due to different pressures on your attention. It’s very easy to start doing something else while the video plays (easier than if a lecturer is stood in front of you talking).

    Perhaps this makes the analogy between going to the cinema and watching online pertinent as the attention issue applies in the same way.

  • Paul Rubin

    I taught a MUOC (massively unpopular online course) several years ago. It took longer to prep than a typical course the first time around, but you get to reuse much of the material. I chunked it at approximately 10-15 minutes per dose, but shorter chunks would not have been much more work. You just record what would be a normal classroom session and cut it at natural break points.

  • June Karonov

    I actually don’t like the flipped classroom style. Its really hard to keep watching the videos without ending up on Youtube or something. I did that once too often and ended up having to ask the folks at MathCrunch for help instead, because I missed some stuff from “class” and couldn’t do it in time for the dateline.

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