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.

21 Responses

  • Thanks, Kate, for hammering home the case against lectures as an efficient way of teaching/learning. I was convinced of the inadequacy of lectures long ago after reading Donald A. Bligh’s book What’s the Use of Lectures? (Penguin Education, 1972). Despite the lack of evidence supporting lectures, they have persisted as a standard technique. The question is why. I would guess it has to do with academic status and convenient but incorrect assumptions about learning.

  • I don’t know if you know this story, but I recently was invited to give a talk at a v conservative conference, in a large lecture hall, and instead of staying on stage, I took the wireless mic and got down with the audience and had them participate in my presentation, showing slides with big photos, few words, and letting audience add in their own knowledge, experience and questions. It was exhilarating. It was a last-minute decision that i made when i realized i wss bored stiff and realized i was on about half an hour after lunchtime and NO ONE would be able to concerntrate.
    It might be that i am not charismatic enough to hold anyone’s attention beyond 5 minutes, but I know I don’t enjoy the sight of students’ eyes glazing over if I do talk that long. I know I enjoy it more when we are all doing something or talking.
    But I had never thought of the importance of the cost argument even though it’s one of the things we tell faculty to consider when they try blended learning – “what could you do f2f that you couldn’t do online? Good, everything else, you can do online” – and definitely considering logistical and financial cost to grad students particularly is important.
    Thanks for this

  • I suppose the answer to the question is “he would do what he did”
    Perhaps mimickry of part of the process isn’t a logical comparison or possible. Not suggest things can’t be borrowed, but an organic occurrence is perhaps too hard to recreate deliberately.

    • Kate Bowles

      Pat, I’m curious to know which part of which process you’re thinking of when you talk about organic occurrence? We might be on the same track, or not.

      • By organic occurrence I would contrast him with tedx. I doubt he planned to get big, or popular. Like contrasting a band with a boy band, one is very much manufactured in production, one happens. How do I relate to something I don’t believe in, poorly. How do I relate to something I don’t think the person doing it believes in, well, usually by walking.

        And I don’t mean happens in a spontaneous sense, I mean happens probably because of latent demand in the populace.

        Interesting the other comments have compared to lectures in the first instance.

        “I believe that a triangle, if it could speak, would say that God is eminently triangular, and a circle that the divine nature is eminently circular; and thus would every one ascribe his own attributes to God.”

        Everyone’s definition is just a tyranny to others, but if something works for you and others great, but it doesn’t mean repeating it makes more sense. This isn’t an argument for videos, but it is funny how we got from theatre of the oppressed to pedagogy of the oppressed, and missed out all of the other ideas theatre could bring to lectures.

        But hey kids, keep on flipping the classroom

        • Kate Bowles

          Pat, I think you’re absolutely right to bring the triangles in. So much of this conversation is about what makes sense to us, that we erroneously believe to be common, inherent, taken-for-granted. On JG specifically, I’m absolutely sure that his situation was not crafted — despite the many, many hair similarities, this is not a One Direction result. This is why I think of him as a natural educator (something I also believed of Myuran Sukumaran): it feels to me that there is something organic in his enthusiasm and his practice. He is like so many Minecraft nerds I know, combined with so many children’s TV presenters who do actually like children. And frankly, it’s the laugh–the performance of someone who forgets what they’re doing. But this takes me into terrain that universities have made very, very murky indeed: charismatic teaching. Over on Martin Weller’s blog I’m now worrying about the gendering of this.

          • Just rocked up over there. All comments your fault

  • I’m not sure ‘hammered’ is the right term – I think Kate’s analysis widens the terms of debate on lectures, but doesn’t absolutely condemn them.

    I like lectures. Or rather, I like good lectures, by which I mean long-form conversations with a decent number of people, led by someone with expertise. What’s missing from the Minecraft videos is the interaction (and of course, what’s being ‘taught’ in them is techniques for a fascinating but ultimately limited activity). I teach literature: introducing and contextualising texts, then discussing with students the multiple ways of interpreting or situating them. For me, the opportunity for the students and myself to talk to each other in that setting outweighs the benefits of a video, which would be just me putting my points across with no possibility of real-time interjections, alternative ideas or tangents being pursued. Perhaps I’m really arguing in favour of the seminar rather than the lecture.

    I worry about the ‘costs’ argument: doesn’t it move the debate onto the Gradgrindian ground of efficiency? Education isn’t efficient in economic terms – but shouldn’t we be arguing about the public good? I worry about the carbon too, and the child-care costs: but if we fit education around the edges of people’s lives, aren’t we in danger of treating it as something unimportant? My mature students and student parents find the classic 18yr-old students infuriating: the former have changed their lives to pursue something important to them, while some of the ‘kids’ treat it as disposable fun. If we’re serious about the liberatory nature of higher education, we should have the confidence to say to them: you need to change your lives to educate yourselves, but you will be transformed in turn. Yes, we should make attendance as easy as possible because our students have complex needs, but I don’t think we should adopt the service models of industries who do not have their customers’ needs truly at the heart of their activities in the way that we do (in theory…).

    • Yeah. I think you’re arguing for a seminar not a lecture 🙂 i don’t think Kate was equating both. I don’t speak for her but i assumed she meant that if you’re going to bring ppl f2f, make it worth their while and pedagogically sound and effective

      • Yes, I think you’re right. And I agree.

        • Kate Bowles

          I’m really glad to see you here, PV, with this argument about what it means when we are all in the room together. I take this to be absolutely what Maha demonstrated when she stepped down off the stage. There’s something about liveness that is unpredictable in important ways. Streaming music may have challenged the market for CDs and other fixed forms, but we do still show up for live music because at some level, we want to know what it feels like to be in the same space with a performer doing what they do.

          But I just want to get back to your thoughts about Minecraft as limited, and so the teaching of Minecraft skills as functional. In the video interview I included in the post, a game developer says this about Minecraft: “It grew up around the community, and the community did new and interesting things with it. What Joseph does, it helps new players ground themselves in the world and see all of the possibilities. It’s a powerful, beautiful game that does amazing things. And sometimes we need a trusted guide, and Joseph does that.” (Simon Lumb, game developer)

          This suddenly struck me as something we could all hope to say about education, and our role in it: trusted guides to a powerful, beautiful game that does amazing things.

          • That’s exactly what I’d like my classes to do. As to Minecraft: I must confess total ignorance beyond what I hear other people’s kids say about it so perhaps my comment on it should be dismissed!

  • Love the opening hammer of Stampy’s numbers (plus the Coursera drive by registration reference); but even then, are numbers of video views a measure of impact? An indirect indicator?

    Expecting to be schooled by someone else for mangling McLuhan (of which I am nearly illiterate in), but when we talk about lecture are we talking about the lecture medium of one person speaking to many in a live setting, or the lecture message, the content itself?

    The example Maha shares was in a lecture hall, she in front of people, yet she chose to change the modality.

    We’ve all experienced great and terrible lectures, do we put them in the same soup pot? I can almost bet there are a lot of really poor and not useful Minecraft videos out there. There are a lot of crappy television shows, is it the fault of the circuitry of the box? And what about blogs? I shrug past a lot, but when I see a Kate Bowles one like this, I am often riveted.

    If Kate was my teacher, the cost and time spent getting to that air conditioned building would be worth it. If the thing we seek is worthy to us we find ways to deal with getting there. When its some rubber stamping procedure better transmitted on a VHS tape….

    This *might* have been a bit of what Pat was referring to as far as performance, but I understand McLuhan a tad better than Lockley 😉

    Never having seen a Stampy video until your post I can understand it better. Like Pat suggested, he did not set out to become a Youtube/Minecraft phenomena. He did not get on stage for 18 minutes billed as one of the Creative Elites Who Are Changing the World. He just bridles with his passion for something that effervesces in whatever he does. The contra to this is profs feeling like they are not “performers”, nor should they be, but with the professorial mantle they ought to be charged enough as passionate advocates for this topic they have devoted their life to, not some late night TV ad read on a teleprompter.

    Maybe it’s not the lecture we should be focusing on, but the lecturer.

    The other thing I do not see often raised when trying to compare education to X where X equals something people actively engage outside of school, is the motivation. People come to Stampy’s videos already pre-wired, motivated to be engaged. They are not compulsed to be there by law or by social factors which influence their ability to become self sufficient. Stampy does not assess them. They come in already fired up to learn Minecraft. They have bitten off on it already.

    There’s a lot to be said about looking at the ways Stampy teaches and the modality. I am fascinated. And I also realize you are setting it against some artificial constructs for required lectures.

    I read this 2 hours ago and could not stop the idea swirl in my head. It’s not just because it was a blog post.

    • Kate Bowles

      Actually, a second point — Alan, I think what you’re saying connects to your project of meeting people that you’ve encountered online, and also to Kate Forristall’s beautiful irlproject.com. Something of this meeting of people in time is what geographers understand as the event of place.

  • Kate Bowles

    Alan, yes, what is interesting is talking about lecturing immediately sidles into a discussion of lecture content. What else is there, other than performance?

    This time last year I was squaring up to lecture in the same class. It was my return to work following chemo, that continued during radiation treatment. I had no hair, I had very pronounced short term memory problems, and towards the end of the experience I was also concealing a substantial third degree burn.

    Standing in the lecture theatre taught me a lot, and having done a lot of content delivery work online, I just don’t think the significance would have been the same. The lecturing body is never just a vehicle for content.

    As for learner motivation, I think perhaps this is also framed by something a bit like empathy as a practice of engagement. I do listen more attentively if I have a reason to be curious about a person I know or have followed. Again, I think this is the live music thing. I am still astonished that I can be in the same room as someone I listen to in my car. That actual person thing, it’s not nothing.

  • becalbury

    Here’s the thing about time and lectures – no tertiary institution I know of cares about the cost of student time – only of staff time. Wrong of them, of course, and the reason for the ‘continue the beatings until they attend’ approach to the students voting with their feet about lectures by commuter institutions. It is the humanity and the insightfulness of those great lecturers that I remember, not the content.

    Another issue is that lecturing has become a one size fits all solution to tertiary teaching. In some disciplines there is a body of knowledge that has to be passed in a more or less orderly fashion through the student brain – the steps of learning are, so to speak, numbered – but in other disciplines, the approach needs to be practiced over and over, first as intellectual toddlers and much later as prize winning intellectual scholars (or for many, good enough thinkers). In undergraduate literature or social science studies, for example, it does not matter what texts are used first to help the student learn to think within the disciplinary frameworks. What is needed is many opportunities to read and talk about what is read in a structured way, to then try to write in a structured way about what has been read and discussed. As students learn to do this, they report that they can’t watch tv or films in the same way or that their favorite trash reading is now open to criticism. Lectures only help with this encouragement to become critical if the lectures themselves are both conversational and open to criticism, but above all – supported by opportunities for the students to converse with each other in ways that support the practices they are learning.

    The need to think critically comes a bit later in the numbered step disciplines, so is likely to happen formally in later years or a program of study. Nevertheless, from the beginning students need each other f2f as well as other modes of learning to gain mastery of the material. Online is another way for students to interact, but for some aspects of learning to ask different questions and to listen to different answers to the old questions face to face with each other – not lecturing still works well. Ones needs only read the ritualised comments on news sites to know that the possibility to talk/write back doesn’t lead to conversation.

    Stampy depends on his viewers tuning in and in marked contrast to the tertiary ed situation – to just laugh and move on rather than sit the cake a building material test. It may also help that they know a few other keen minecrafters!

  • francesbell

    Thanks for a brilliant post Kate and to commenters for such great insights from different perspectives. I am going to go with the thoughts that came into my mind when I read your post. I reflected on lectures from my wonderful standpoint as a retired lecturer where I no longer need to give them:) As professionals, we might strive through curriculum development, lobbying, persuasion to minimise or eliminate lectures within the student experience but we still arrive at the start of the academic year with a timetable with time slots and physical locations. Academics who care about student learning and experience seem to me to employ pragmatism to make the best of what they have available. I remember one of my lecturers telling me 40 years ago that he had read of maximum concentration span so he always told a joke half way through the lecture – bless!
    I thought I would try to think of some ways in which lectures can be beneficial to students. First and foremost, they can provide social glue – the chance to have a coffee with friends, for some students the chance to make contact with the lecturer at the end (notice the lecturers who have to move out of the theatre before the next lecture starts, still trailing the little queue of students).
    I always felt the that first lecture was very important for scene-setting, and when working in teams, we always tried to get the whole team present and contributing. I think that most of us like to put faces to names.
    Lectures can be used to provide conceptual glue (or at any rate links) between the lecture and what happens in smaller group settings. This could be inspiring reading, introducing an activity to be followed up in tutorials/ seminars/ labs.
    In my last few years in HE, I had the privilege to work in a team of enthusiastic colleagues on a module that aimed to encourage a mixture of enthusiastic experimentation and critical awareness of emerging technologies. We tried to make use of the lecture slot by incorporating relevant brief video slots, discussion points in small groups, with the exposition elements of a lecture. Once, when demonstrating Twitter by taking an audience question to be posed to my Twitter network, checking back every so often. One student was moved to give me surely my greatest ever accolade in a tweet “Mint lecture that’ – lolz.
    We also audio-recorded the lectures with hand-held recorders and posted the recordings on the VLE but we soon discovered that the more interactive the lecture became, the less sense it made as a recording.
    But I really wanted to contrast the serendipitous use we were able to make of technology in and around lectures with the dead hand imposed by automated lecture capture (horrible word) systems. Not only would our lectures not make sense in that setting but we would be plagued with the responsibility for the legal/ availability checking of every youtube video, and the shared joke with students becoming something persistent and checkable. This was a course where we stressed complying with CCL, the need for attribution so I am not saying that those things aren’t important but awareness of surveillance can dampen spontaneity. We used technology as ‘found’ within the timetable and resource constraints – I am so glad I never had to work within the stultifying top down constraints of lecture capture systems. Of course, as I didn’t, I am quite prepared for someone to point out their advantages.
    Anyway, apologies for ‘post masquerading as comment’, just put it down to me being back on full cream broadband after 3 1/2 weeks on the road with very dodgy connectivity.

  • Perhaps the question is (after also seeing Jonathan R’s reply)
    Lectures don’t work for some
    So what does?
    And “what does” is an altogether scarier question than the somewhat gutless “how do we improve lectures?”. One is aiming for the best, the other is not.
    It shows in everything else as well

    My last four conference presentations
    One was a fifteen minute video in which I played multiple characters
    One was just pictures and jokes
    One was very dour and boring (but was to an international group and my humour is a bit acquired)
    The last one I played bingo with the audience and had a prize

    Given a bit more scope, like a course, I am sure I would create chaos

  • Great post Kate. You definitely have a point about the cost of lectures. I haven’t thought about it in those terms before because, and perhaps I’m the exception not the rule here, I’ve always regarded lectures as priceless, even the boring ones (luckily I’ve had very few). These days I have 2 kids at school and one in daycare. I pay 2 days of care each week totalling $250/week but I only get 10 hours worth of free time then to use as I still pick up my other 2 kids at 3:15pm. I could spend another $60/week to pay for after school care but I instead choose to pay a babysitter more than that to gain extra study hours on my other days as nearly half of my 10 hours each week is lost in travelling to/from uni, getting lunch, coffee, going to library etc. And I’m only studying one unit each semester these days. So I spend nearly $400/week in order to do 10 hours of study for my unit!! It’s crazy. I happen to be in a very fortunate position where my family can afford this but most with young kids can’t. So yes, the cost of attending lectures & tutes is enormous. However, even if I was studying from home I would still need to pay probably $300/week as I can’t get anything done while my nearly 2 yr old is awake, so I still need daycare/babysitting.

    I’ve been doing this since 2010 – including 2 years as an external student. I have to say that being an external student has sucked out of me all the passion for studying that I used to have. Study became a chore. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I used to. I’m about to start my studies again in a few weeks as a ‘normal’ student again and I hope so much that it reignites my passion for study again.

    So I guess my point is that attending actual classes whether or not they are truly engaging is priceless. But that’s me. One of my friends who also juggles the mum-study balls prefers to do some of her classes externally. Perhaps lecture theatres could become much smaller for those subjects that don’t attract many bums on seats to lessen the cost of air-con, cleaning, whatever other overheads are needs. Perhaps we could be offered the choice of going to a lecture in person or watching a video recorded lecture. Video would be a big improvement on audio because at least you get the body language then. Maybe this way you might get the 10 nerdy students you expect as your in-person audience and the rest can watch on YouTube.

    How are you btw?

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