Kyle Henson | Allowing technology to reinvent college

The Logical Skeptic | Online lectures have the power to revolutionize learning

· October 9, 2012, 1:04 am

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Kyle Henson
The Logical Skeptic

In 1999, English professor and Faculty Director of the Kelly Writers House Al Filreis gave a 60-second lecture declaring, “We should live to see the end of the lecture as we know it.”

In the 13 years since, Penn hasn’t made much progress in changing the traditional paradigm. While many of our classes are recorded and uploaded to Blackboard, these recordings are only meant to supplement antiquated in-person lectures that students are expected to attend.

Is there any significant advantage to attending lectures in person? Are lectures really the best way to employ Penn’s eminent faculty? Are undergraduates getting their $39,088 worth of tuition by listening passively?

I believe the answer to all three of these questions is a resounding no. Penn (and all of its peers) can do better, and we already have the tools to do so.

Having professors stand year after year in front of a class reciting nearly or exactly the same information is an utter waste of their time. Instead, these lectures should be recorded once and made available electronically to future groups of students enrolled in the course.

Students who want to do well should have to force themselves to watch the recorded lectures just like they currently force themselves to attend class.

This would free up time that professors previously spent lecturing, allowing them to create interactive classes. Rather than spending three hours in lecture and one hour in a recitation every week, students would participate in two hours of discussion in small groups.

The changes would vary significantly across departments and cater to each discipline. Small group discussions would replace in-person lectures in the humanities, whereas science lectures could continue to focus on problem-solving.

While this change would constitute fewer hours in class, it would result in better and more effective learning, leading to a better education. Almost every class could be converted into something like a seminar. This would help a big school like Penn feel much smaller.

In an era where many are claiming that online learning platforms like Coursera will end higher education as we know it, it is particularly vital that Penn does not remain complacent about its product.

Lectures comparable to those we attend every day are already available on sites that are as easy to use as YouTube. But the opportunity to engage with professors and your peers is still a great asset.

Penn must find innovative ways to protect its education against the encroachment of online alternatives. Embracing online platforms will not only improve the quality of a Penn education, but also grant students and professors dynamic ways to keep the material interesting.

Beyond these educational advantages, there are practical benefits that should make the investment all the more attractive to administrators focused on the bottom line.

Since many lectures are already posted onto Blackboard, it would require almost no additional cost to make them available online. This proposal would merely require all lectures to be recorded as they occur and involve a very minor investment.

Aside from educating Penn students, increasing the number of lectures available online could tap into a huge potential source of revenue for the University by allowing high school students to take real college classes.

Instead of taking Advanced Placement classes and exams, students would take a college class through online lectures and sit for a final exam (all for a fee, of course).

Online education is not something schools like Penn should fear. Instead, it provides a great opportunity to reinvent and improve the education it provides.

Kyle Henson is a College senior from Harrisburg, Pa. His email address is khenson@sas.upenn.edu. “The Logical Skeptic” appears every other Tuesday. Follow him @KyleHensonDP.

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