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Steve Wheeler

Steve Wheeler has spent his entire career working in educational technology. He is currently Associate Professor of Learning Technology at Plymouth University, where his research interests include social media and mobile technologies in education. He has conducted research into learning technology in all sectors of education and training and, having been invited to present his findings at conferences in more than 30 countries, he is truly a global educator.

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Publications by Steve Wheeler

Learning with ‘e’s

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...or not to lecture

November 30 2016

In my previous post I wrote that even though research shows lectures to be less than effective in helping students to learn, they still persist in higher education. I also promised to blog about some of the alternatives when it comes to teaching very large groups, and here it is. The key question is: What can replace the lecture?

One of the first things to understand about teaching large groups is that they are made up of many individuals who are all just as anxious as each other to do well in their studies. Therefore, although there is great temptation for lecturers to treat 200 students as a group, they should really be trying to reach each individual student, and engage them in learning at the deepest possible level. There is no point simply talking at them for an hour. Most students will switch off. Worse still, they may decide not to attend lectures at all. Deeper learning often only comes about when we gain the interest of our students.

How can we promote better engagement with large groups in lecture theatres? One of the constraints of the lecture theatre is its design. Rows and rows of front facing, tiered seating are not conducive to discussion, but often the 'turn to the person next to you and...' kind of instruction can work at a superficial level. Until universities start to reconfigure lecture theatres and build spaces more friendly to discussion, we are left with finding ways to adapt existing traditional spaces. Moving large groups into break out rooms, or trying to use the spaces at the sides of lecture theatres can be disruptive or hazardous, and may often not be possible. If it is not an option, then alternatives to discussion must be sought.

Presenting large groups of students with a challenge or a problem is often effective in enabling individuals to tackle concepts or theories in an active manner. Problem based learning has been shown to be effective in encouraging students to engage at a high level with learning. With the lecturer moving around the room listening in to conversations and intervening to prompt, challenge or consolidate ideas can further engage students.

Technology can be an additional prompt for active learning. The concept of TEAL - Technology Enabled Active Learning - is one example. The MIT version of TEAL involves large group teaching through a combination of instruction, collaborative activities and media rich simulations and interactions. One of the key factors for success is that students work together on shared devices such as laptops. This enables more discussion and interaction, and students scaffold each other in their learning. Here's something I wrote about TEALs in a previous post - which highlights the importance of the teacher:
As a response to the problems of learning in homogenised, regimented environments such as classrooms and lecture halls, Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL) came into being. It is one of several approaches to moving away from tedious and passive learning environments where students are expected to listen, take notes and remember what is being said and presented. TEAL spaces feature several characteristics, including flexible learning spaces where furniture can be moved into many alternative configurations, technology enriched contexts (wireless and untethered, web enabled and personal technologies) and a shift from teacher led lessons to student centred learning, where the learner can take control, and the teacher facilitates. One argument is that simply having access to personalised technologies creates conducive conditions in which active learning can occur. However, the role of the teacher is also paramount in the success of TEAL approaches. Without strategic input from teachers at critical junctures during a lesson, and without some clear goal or set of objectives, students can lose focus, become distracted and go off task.

If universities are serious about engaging students in deeper forms of learning, then several things need to happen. There needs to be a change in emphasis from teaching to learning, a shift in pedagogy is required, and the infrastructure and spaces in which formal education occurs need to be reformed. If universities are not serious about transforming learning experiences, then we can expect no significant changes anytime soon.

Photo by Steve Wheeler

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...or not to lecture by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Posted by Steve Wheeler from Learning with e's

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To lecture...

November 30 2016

A recent article on the BBC News website asks why lectures aren't obsolete. It seems strange that although research points to their ineffectiveness as a method of learning, lectures still figure predominantly in higher education. Some academics might argue that when faced with a large group of 150 or more students, the lecture is the only viable method. Patently this is untrue, but moving away from this traditional method seems to be a complex problem to address.

In the light of all the new technologies that are now available to universities, the article asks, why has the lecture refused to go away? One astute observation is that even when universities do adopt online modes of teaching such as MOOCs, all that seems to occur is the lecture is transferred to digital format. This is sometimes referred to pejoratively as 'shovelware' in academic circles, because course designers and lecturers can't seem to break out of the traditional mode of thinking about teaching, and simply shovel their content across into digital format. As a result, a lot of content found on university VLEs consists of PowerPoint slides or other lecture oriented artifacts - of which more later.

There are three issues to consider here. The first, as has been clearly articulated by Vicki Davis, is that technology should be used to support student learning and as a set of tools to encourage the creation of original/new content. It should never be used to control learning or to determine the content students to which they have access. Too often, the pace and direction of learning continue to be dictated by the sage on the stage.

The second issue is that lecturers often use technology as a substitute for interactivity, assuming that the inclusion of a video for example, will deliver content in a new and dynamic manner. Video certainly has its place in the learning environment, but it should never be used as a surrogate for good dialogue or other discursive learning activities. Video, as with any technology, should be used as a stimulus to thinking and should never become a stopgap when the lecturer needs to pad out some time.

The third concerns the nature of the lecture itself. If a lecture is nothing more than an expert standing in front of an audience speaking for an hour, then there are clearly issues around its effectiveness. Many lectures do fit this profile, and even those where academics try to embellish with technology can fall flat. This is usually because the addition of features such as PowerPoint slides merely replace or reinforce the didactic method. The majority of lecture slides contain little more than text and bullet points, which tempts lecturers to read from them. The problem with this is that many lecture slides are more for the benefit of the lecturer than they are for the students.

Notwithstanding these issues, I believe there is some hope. In my next blog post I'm going to argue that lectures can be transformed into active learning events with the appropriate application of pedagogy and technology.  I hope to offer some examples of alternative methods to lecturing that can, and do, engage large groups of students.

Photo by Archbob on Pixabay

Creative Commons License
To lecture... by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Posted by Steve Wheeler from Learning with e's

Read Blog