Tuesday, May 12, 2009

This is your education on iPods ...

“Lectures are the worst possible learning format,” says Brian Brooks, Associate Dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

So there you have it. He adds,
“There’s been some research done that shows if a student can hear that lecture a second time, they retain three times as much of that lecture.”
With the goal of enabling students to hear that lecture as often as possible (and thereby shaking up the Billboard Hot 100, one presumes), aspiring journalists at the school will carry iPods or iPhones.

This is an experiment, following that of Stanford and other campuses, and lectures will be made available as podcasts from university servers using Tegrity, a lecture capture web service, and also via Apple's iTunes University. Students also have the alternative of downloading the podcasts to their PCs or laptops although the mobile option would be more convenient. The theory is,
“There’s a lot of theory out there that says what you want to do is engage students in realms where they are already comfortable, and we know a lot of students are already familiar with iPods and iTunes so we want to get into that space and take advantage of that,” he said.
So there's the meat of it. Many students these days seem to be quite disengaged from education. On the other hand, they are very engaged, but to matters other than education, and more often than not to popular culture. So why not try to reach them through the channels they are most wont to utilise: a behaviour-centred approach?

The great shapers of opinion and/or behaviour today -- at least among the young or the undereducated -- are no longer individuals with commanding personalities, or their surrogates in the form of religions and cults. The modern corporation has been very successful in its project of employing science and scholarship to unravel the secrets of influencing opinion and behaviour and developing systematic means of exploiting this knowledge. This is a force that can be used for good, but is not infrequently employed primarily to empty consumer pockets fill corporate coffers. Universities and other institutions with a social conscience, rather than (or in addition to) tilting at these forces, might do well to co-opt them for more benign purposes, as in this case.

Then again, this is an experiment in augmenting the existing format of large institution higher education with ubiquitously available and popular technology. Will it work?

Much depends on what metrics are to be used for determining success. Students are likely to be thrilled to have the iPods legitimised as an academic accessory. With that imprimatur in place, they might be persuaded to check in on some lecture, in between periods of soaking in the latest pop or rock sensations. But I don't know how many young people would have the patience to sit through just listening to a 50-minute long lecture, even assuming the sound is of acceptable quality. Further, there are few subjects taught in a modern university for which the format of a pure lecture, devoid of any visual aids or visual and spatial references and props, will work very well. Perhaps for poetry and literature. Even there, it's not just the information content of a lecture alone, but also other paralinguistic cues such as facial expressions, body posture, etc. which imbue a lecture with additional, often critical meaning.

Furthermore there is a certain irony in the Associate Dean declaring lectures to be the worst possible learning format, and then enabling students to learn in that format as many times as possible. Why would you want to inflict the worst format on someone repeatedly? Is the repetition of a bad format better than just doing it once?

Looking for positives, only on rare occasions -- perhaps one had to miss out on an entire lecture of scintillating quality -- would students choose to listen to a lecture in its entirety. More likely, one might wish to home in on specific snippets that had not been clear when heard the first time. To make this experiment really successful, the University ought to develop or find some technology that allows a student to quickly locate a specific segment of a lecture by searching for content, without having to listen to the lecture from start to finish. This lecture podcast service requires a voice-recognition and transcription engine for the purpose.

Here, folks, is an opportunity to advance the cause of education with more than just blindly flinging technology at it. What more can we add to this mix of iPod/iTunes/Tegrity?

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