Friday, May 17, 2013

On MOOCs, flip-lectures and the medieval

The Times today reported on a conference about learning techniques that seemed to focus on 'innovation' in the classroom ( Its silly headline reads: '"Medieval" lectures could be replaced by free online courses'. It's a headline that makes no sense, since it implies that 'lectures' (which take many different forms), are 'medieval' in origin (when they've been a tested form of education since the classical period), and will be eliminated by 'courses' (which are not synonymous with 'lectures') that are 'free' (so what?) and 'online' (only available in electronic form? Really?). 

No one should believe this. 

The report goes on to say that Don Nutbeam, Southampton's Vice-Chancellor, believes that flip-lectures (not the same as 'online courses' or, indeed, 'free') could '"liberate" students from out-of-date styles of teaching'. He goes on to say that having watched the flip lecture, students and lecturer could then 'convene a discussion in a lecture hall'! Oh, that'll be a lecture, then? Most contemporary in-person lectures I have seen involve, effectively, the lecturer talking and then discussing issues with the students, but, truthfully, there is no one-size fits all model of teaching at institutions internationally. At my university, we use all forms of teaching: traditional lectures, seminars, tutorials, field trips, workshops, online supplementary materials, and flip-lectures. Moreover, "flip-lectures" and these other techniques have been around for years (ask the Open University, or look at Youtube); it's just the audience that has broadened by the openness of the internet.

Nutbeam was joined in discussion by Mark Taylor, the dean of Warwick Business School. He apparently said: 'Seminars and lectures are medieval concepts. They were introduced in medieval Europe and haven’t changed much in 700 or 800 years.' Oh dear. Where to start with this? It's not accurate of course, but even if it were, so what? Is the implication that not only lectures but seminars should be jettisoned because they're old? They should be scrapped because they're 'medieval'? Hang on! Universities are medieval. Parliament is medieval. Common Law is medieval. Mercantilism is medieval. Towns are medieval. English is medieval. 

This use of 'medieval' to suggest something so... what? -- Old-fashioned? Redundant? Useless? Simplistic? -- is vacuous. It is facile. It is, however, potentially damaging to those of us who focus our scholarly and academic efforts on the medieval. So, simply: please, stop it.