The Future of Engineering Lectures

Lectures have been around since the time of the Greeks.  Text books are rather younger but have changed little in the last 100 years, except perhaps for the addition of colour.  Together they have formed the basis for university education for many decades suggesting that they are either very effective or ripe for change.  Or maybe both.

In the last few years the idea of MOOCs (Massive open online courses) have been promoted as providing an alternative to traditional higher education.   The idea is that rather than thousands of (often mediocre) lectures on very similar subjects being delivered at universities worldwide to relatively few students, a few courses of the highest quality are delivered to millions via the web.   The cost of providing material to each student is drastically reduced while the quality of material is substantially higher. Supporters of MOOCs have made some rather wild claims about the possibility of MOOCs making traditional universities redundant in a few years in a similar manner to Wikipedia making traditional encyclopaedias largely redundant .  So far the reality has been a little different. While take-up of MOOCs has been dramatic with millions signing up, only a very small proportion finishes a course, sometimes as little as 2%, The effectiveness of the education has also been questioned.  Indeed there are moves to provide tutorials and local support alongside the web-based MOOC.  This is getting rather close to starting new universities! It seems the lecture (and university) will live to see another day.   The motivation of being part of a group, social learning, and the academic environment of a university are all hard to replicate in a purely virtual world.

However, it would be strange if higher education were unique in not being fundamentally affected by developments on the web. Yet to date this has not really happened. Although most universities now have VLEs, usually these are simply used as repositories for traditional lecture notes and lecture slides.  E- and mobile-learning have been buzzwords for a decade but except in a few cases have had fairly little impact on undergraduate teaching methods: the textbook used as core resource here in Manchester on a first year structures courses is the same one I used 20 years ago as an undergraduate, and that was the same one as my father used in the 1960s!

There are exceptions, however. In the field of structural engineering these include the very good, such as the ExpeditionWorkshed website, as well as myriad Youtube videos of variable quality which perhaps point to what future higher education will look like. These are being used increasingly by students to supplement traditional lecture material, a trend that seems likely to continue.  At some point I suspect the lecture will no longer be seen as the core of a university course with all other activities hanging of it but rather just one of many ways of accessing material. It has been known for a long time that lectures are a very poor way of transferring technical information so this is probably a welcome development. But it raises the question of what form university teaching, and particularly lectures will take in future.

My suspicion is that there will be fewer lectures and that these will be more about context setting and inspiration, something they are very good it, rather than transmitting information.  Tutorials and social learning in various forms will feature more highly in many courses and much material will be produced to be web-based from scratch, rather than simply traditional notes placed on a website. Overall universities will be seen much less as repositories of information (which is widely and freely available to all now) and much more about being an environment that is conducive to learning.


One thought on “The Future of Engineering Lectures

  1. Pingback: “Lectures are a waste of time…” | Thinking Outside...

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