But we desperately want live lectures to work. We’ve done them for so long now that they seem a part of who we are. And we are tantalised by the mirage of thinking that if only everyone turned up, they would be a far more efficient way of teaching than the seminar or the tutorial.
Desperately. So desperately that we are prepared to ignore the prodigious financial and environmental cost of heating or cooling large empty spaces. So desperately that we are prepared to pay staff to talk to empty rooms. So desperately that we are prepared to attribute all kinds of behaviours and behavioural deficits to students.
Marnie Hughes Warrington, DVC, “That Sinking Feeling: Counting the Cost of Live Lectures“
If you’re the parent of a Minecraft age child, chances are you’ve encountered Joseph Garrett, aka Stampy The Cat, Stampylongnose or Stampylonghead. He’s the 24 year old British YouTuber with the high-pitched giggle who’s playing as the soundtrack to your life right now:
He’s teaching your kids how to dig, build, grow, combine and trade resources in imaginary worlds. He and his friends are modelling ways of working cooperatively, having fun, and taking care of each other. His YouTube channel features a new short video every day. He has 6,073,312 subscribers and 3,742,298,125 views. This year he’s also starring in a Disney-backed cartoon education show, Wonder Quest, using YouTube to teach your kids even more stuff.
Coursera, who like to claim drive-by sign-ups as actually engaged students (“more than 12.8 million students have registered for courses“) might notice that this busy, practical, popular, amateur educator measures his impact in billions. As a couple more reference points, Khan Academy on YouTube has 2,203,404 subscribers and a teensy 582,700,573 views; for the grown-ups, TED’s YouTube channel has 3,536,543 subscribers and 429,508,512 views. And so on.
I was thinking about Joseph Garrett this morning as I was reading ANU Deputy Vice Chancellor Marnie Hughes-Warrington on the institutional sunk costs that mean we continue to treat the 55 minute live lecture as the gold standard for instructional delivery in Australian universities (despite highly promoted moves to phase out lectures at the University of Adelaide and UTS). Marnie argues that we lecture without due attention to the economics of the habit, and in particular that we do it without reckoning on the professional impact on staff.
She’s right. The university lecture is the city where all faiths converge. Until we work out how to make online content as updatable and responsive as a live presentation, then investment in video production is just being added to capital investment in buildings and their maintenance, salaries and on-costs for the permanent staff, and quality assurance procedures for both domestic and international students, all cohering around the idea that content is delivered not found, and delivering content matters more than other forms of teaching. This is why lecturing costs more in hourly compensation rates, and it’s typically weighted more in workload models: content is the badge of expertise, and singular, charismatic expertise is what you get at universities. Lecturing gets the best rooms and, typically, the better tech. Lectures get recorded. Posterity’s archive is stuffed with lectures.
So I’m thinking about Marnie’s points about cost as I’m staring at a syllabus that says that there will be lectures every week, in a timetabled room with raked seating and whiteboards, and an emergency exit plan, and a clock, and a networked computer that spends most of its active life being a dumb slide projector. As Marnie points out, we measure usage of rooms like this in terms of bodies showing up—thermal monitoring! that’s very fancy—but I think it’s worth trying to get beyond this to the complexities of time as finite and unreplayable. Human hours are the one resource spent on education that won’t be recouped later, under any loan plan, no matter how brilliant the graduate outcome. I’ve written on this before: I think this means educators need to reflect on whether we take the opportunity of presence to use the gift of time wisely.
This means understanding that just as we measure staff contact time as the tip of an iceberg of preparation and consultation, so we should expect students to calculate the opportunity cost of showing up at least in terms of travel and work. In this syllabus for a class that might have around 160 students enrolled, the projected cost in human hours committed to sitting-and-listening lecture time is therefore around 160 hours per week. We’re already sailing close to the edge of the world by delivering 8 lectures rather than the standard 13 that our workload model is built on. But this still means that we’re projecting 1280 human hours into this sitting and listening over the whole course of the semester.
Now let’s imagine that an hour in a lecture represents three hours including travel and waiting around time. So that means we’re planning to use up 3840 irreplaceable human hours lecturing. On top of that, these hours are taken from something else, so what if we try to imagine this in terms of lost income? The Australian minimum wage is $17.29 before tax. So we could think of this lecturing impost as costing something like $8299 a week in lost earnings, which is also money not spent in our local economy. Then we could try to calculate its true dollar cost to students in a way that factors in the price of petrol or public transport to attend and get home again afterwards.
Or we could look at this another way altogether, and calculate the lecture’s carbon footprint in terms of its education miles: how far are we expecting people to drive to sit and listen to something that they could access from home? And what about the other human intangibles of opportunity cost: time spent on health, self-care, care of others? What if we assigned a dollar value to these and calculated lecture attendance in terms of all the time and money we extract from communities and families? (If this seems extreme to you, think about the student parent we’re asking to pay for a full day’s childcare to attend a one hour lecture. These costs are not abstractions, we just don’t measure them yet.)
I don’t have a simple answer to this. I’ve loved the experience of listening to people who interest me; I drove hours in the rain to hear Derek Walcott read his poems in person and that’s time I’ll never regret giving. On the other hand, I have a three minute attention span and I’ve lost it completely at meetings, in training sessions, at conferences, in the movies, and in conversation with friends. So I understand why students are on Facebook in their lectures; I’m just not sure they need to drive an hour each way or give up a shift at work to do this in person.
And as I watch my daughter’s really delighted absorption in Joseph Garrett’s daily briefings, I realise that what I envy him isn’t that he gets paid to do something that makes the whole world laugh along with him. It’s his freedom as an educator to design the way he teaches around the circumstances of his learners. My daughter isn’t just learning from him that cake is a building material; she’s learning how to learn in a way that is driven by what she wants to know, when she wants to know it. She learns by doing, and she turns to him when she’s stuck. His video pedagogy is just-in-time, and just-enough, and the proof of her mastery is in what she can do. If you want a fancy term, this is CBL and flipped classroom on skates.
So thanks to Marnie Hughes-Warrington and Joseph Garrett, I’m now looking at this syllabus with fresh eyes.
What would Stampy do?
Jonathan Rees has responded to this post on his blog, and I just want to take an opportunity to say thank you to Jonathan and all the commenters below. I am the world’s slowest writer and least productive scholar, but I am absolutely a better thinker because of the people who challenge me here. People ask what value academic blogging is, especially if you’re not in the business of personal brand-building, and to me the questions I’ve been asked or the new ideas that have been put to me here (Spinoza!), are all the answer you need.