Thursday, May 24, 2012

Everything might change a lot for people like us, and soon

It has recently been revealed to me that our university is Very Concerned about the potentially disruptive effects of online lectures on our future. I've been thinking about this for a while but the push to form appropriate committees nudged me into writing about it here.

Cuz it's obvious there's no * reason why lectures need to be given by professors live. My wife took a course that offered video versions of lectures the next day, and most of the students skipped and just watched the videos. And why not? You can watch them at 2x speed (an option they offered). But then why even perform new lectures every year? Neuroanatomy doesn't really change. Follow the logic a little bit and why even have those professors on site? And why shouldn't everyone just watch the single best lecturer in the country on the topic??

There are now companies that are recruiting great professors to record lectures, and distribute them to universities. They aren't trying to compete with universities, but to work with us. From my perspective now, I shudder to think of someone better than me teaching *my* class. But looking at it from the undergrads perspecitve, I'd much prefer to have a superstar lecture at me than my university's local person. Especially if some evil demon forced me to take Physical Chemistry ever again.

* OK, im sure there's someone who would defend lectures, but much of it can be offloaded to recordings.

Some people I know feel very scared of this future. I think there's little change that professors will die away. I do think that lecturing may become less of our jobs. I envision a future where students watch the lecture then come into class and there's a discussion.

I am usually pretty skeptical in the face of people who think the world is about to change in a major way in the very near future (open access publishing). Not opposed, just skeptical. And here I think the skepticism may be justified. Live lectures have been the way of the academy for 800+ years.

But yesterday,  as we all discussed this stuff, and the way Cold Weather University ought to change to address these potential disruptions, I started to think maybe things will be changing. And I want us to get out ahead of it. I want to reorient the curriculum in the Neuroscience major.

Freshman year has video lectures with small group discussion sections. Then on top of that, (1) intensive scientific writing and (2) matlab classes, (3) statistics classes

Sophomore year has video lectures plus classes in (1) writing a scientific paper, (2) writing grants, (3) advanced stats, (4) object oriented programming, and gui programming.

Summer after sophomore year, students have to work in a lab 40 hrs/week. No pay, but no tuition either.

Junior year: video lectures. AND grant writing practicum, with a requirement to write a grant app and submit it to the department, where it is scored. Plus discussion sections where students present their project proposals, their data, brainstorm problems with their projects, etc. They work a little bit in the lab, but mostly are preparing for the next summer. Also a public speaking class.

Summer after junior year: more data collection.

Senior year, write and submit the paper. Plus the other stuff, including another public speaking class.

This new curriculum will require a lot more time from professors, but remember they won't have to lecture nearly as much. In fact, the discussion sections can be led by advanced grad students. The big difference is that professors have to spend more time teaching writing and speaking.

Now, you may say that this means students are being prepared for grad school, not for other jobs. I would argue that this is a much better preparation for most jobs than your standard lecture classes only. It gives students much more training with writing and speaking, programming, and stats, skills that are very generally useful.


  1. In theory, this makes a lot of sense. But:

    "My parents aren't paying $45k/year so I can watch a dang video and talk to a grad student!"

  2. Charlie Wilson @crewilsonMay 25, 2012 at 1:36 AM

    Well yes, but the $45K/year (I shudder every time I head US tuition fees) is worth it for the smaller group discussions and teaching that the prof can now offer because his/her lecturing time is massively reduced. There was a lot of this in my degree (in the UK) and it was by far the most useful part of my degree, which lacked many of the excellent practical elements you propose. I've noticed that in teaching students and grads from the US, the ability to engage in this sort of discussion is something they tend to lack relative to European counterparts, whilst they tend to have more skills and maths than the Europeans.

    I suspect lectures will come to be viewed as I viewed textbooks. I didn't want the profs to write the textbooks then and there for me, I just got out Kandel & Schwartz etc.

    1. A ha! Let's call it the "Oxbridge System" and then parents will go for it! It's just a marketing problem.

      Also, I love the textbook analogy. Lectures are the lecturing equivalent of textbooks. No need to be given by a local. Just need to have a local exegete.


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