Teaching with the Internet; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Google In My Classroom ~ Stephen's Web

Lecture with skeleton Stephen Downes questions Adeline Koh’s questioning of the lecture form for keynotes. He’s right to question.

In a classroom, the lecture is imposed, regularly scheduled, controlled, and it epitomizes all that is wrong in regulated institutional learning. A classroom lecture is about making people learn what you want to make them learn. At least, that’s the norm. And a lecture is incredibly bad at playing that role – much worse than a book or a decent website. That’s why, for the most part, most good teachers don’t habitually do lectures or, if they do, they keep them very short and situate them in other activities, as Koh suggests they should, and/or use them as ignition points for the real learning that goes on outside the classroom.

A keynote at a conference is not like that at all. With very few exceptions, every attendee makes a deliberate choice to attend and to devote a small chunk of time to being inspired and/or challenged. At least, we hope that’s what will happen. That is at least why we try to get keynotes with interesting things to say. It’s not a means of drumming facts into people. It’s a voluntarily chosen opportunity to see the world a bit differently, not unlike choosing to see a movie that you suspect will affect you. Personally, I do like to provide a bit of variety and audience engagement in my keynotes, especially if I can encourage attendees to engage face-to-face or onine, but that’s really just to keep the interest rolling and to find ways of helping people take ownership of the things that matter to them in whatever it is that I am rabbiting on about. I do so because it’s pretty hard to spend an hour being consistently inspiring and it seems a pity to waste the opportunity to engage with a bunch of smart, interested, like-minded people if they have taken the trouble to attend.

A bad keynote is tedious. I have been bored to sleep by those, who were otherwise some of the greatest thinkers with really interesting things to say, that just stood up and read at me or, worse, read at their notes while barely looking up. Why bother doing that? I’d much rather watch a movie. Even a bad keynote, though, is not entirely a waste of time. The real value of such a thing is not the boringly delivered lecture itself, but that you are sitting there with a load of other bored people with whom you can talk about it afterwards. It’s a shared focal point. This can help spark some interesting conversations, especially if some people managed to overcome their boredom and found inspiration in the words.

If lectures at schools and universities were run like keynotes, with voluntary attendance and carefully chosen inspirational speakers, it might not be a bad thing at all, though the rest of the accreditation framework would have to change too. There were some optional lectures in my first degree but I attended only one in the whole time I was there. I still remember that lecture quite vividly – it did change how I think and it really was inspiring – but there were dozens of others that I missed because they wouldn’t be on the exam (nor was the one I attended – it was just really interesting and someone I respected had suggested I might like it). I attended dozens of such lectures in my second degree because I was a far more mature learner and I was there to learn, not to pass the test: I attended because I was interested, not because I had to do so, and I got a huge amount out of them and the surrounding conversations. This is what we need – people that learn because they want to, not because we tell them they must, and not because we will punish them if they do not. Disaggregation of teaching and assessment is the crucial next step we absolutely have to take if we are to make institutional education as useful as it should, and easily could, be.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.downes.ca/post/64322

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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