Lecture in the Video Age

One topic that can really rile up educators is the effectiveness of the lecture model. Some will maintain that lecture is essential while others find a great deal of fault in that logic. I love this 13th century painting, which looks fairly similar to a modern classroom with notetakers, some talking in the back, bored looks, and even one guy sleeping (discussed more in this article).


There is also some compelling research suggesting that lecture should largely be replaced with more active learning. This shouldn’t be all that surprising, and popular discussions about the power of doing over hearing evolved out of Edgar Dale’s (1946) Cone of Experience.

Some healthy debate about the lecture model is likely a good thing, but as online learning becomes increasingly popular, the question of what makes an effective and engaging online class becomes even more crucial.

Taken as a whole, current research provides a few guidelines such as using more active learning and limiting video to 6 minute chunks. The challenge for instructors and course designers is how to incorporate all of the necessary course content in ways that promote active learning and ensure student engagement. Active and online seem almost mutually exclusive given the relative isolation of students and one-way, instructor to student, communication. Video lectures, if used, are essentially passive (although the use of closed captioning has been shown to increase engagement among hearing students and adds support for universal design). Discussions can be one avenue to more active learning but it depends on what students are asked to do.

In light of all this, I have a few suggestions for designers looking to make effective use of video lectures:

Focus on Key Ideas for Video Lectures

Rather than capturing hour long lectures, even if chunked into six minute videos, work with faculty to identify the most important ideas or concepts. Ask them about the one thing in each lecture that can only come from them. What do they do better than anyone else? Limiting video lecture in this way helps ensure that students will actually watch the video and it maintains the personal touch that many students say is important in their online courses. Also, consider tying in a small project of some sort. For example, in a physics class ask students to independently verify a concept through simple, around the house experimentation or finding an example online. Students could also share and discuss their findings in the discussion forum.

Have Students Fill In the Missing Content

Cutting out a significant portion of a lecture may not go over well. A key concern might be that students will miss out on important content. If the video lecture was the only source of information that could be true, but content should be presented in various formats to keep a course interesting. I think a couple small group projects each semester can add an interesting element to online classes and in my own experiments have gone over well with students. There are various ways to approach this such as assigning topics to students for presentation via a video, blog post, website, Prezi or any other way they choose. Similarly, the instructor can maintain a class blog and ask for (or assign) “guest lecturers”. Students can use the comment section to engage with the guest. Such projects can also serve as formative assessments and instructors can highlight misunderstandings and address them quickly.

Assign Mini Projects

As an extension of the above, assign mini projects that ask students to figure something out on their own. For example, instead of working examples for students in a math class, ask them to solve real world problems themselves such as calculating the height of a treekite or anything else. Such mini projects can be homework assignments or jumping off points for discussions. This also helps students see online classes as more than just sitting in front of a computer.

In Conclusion, lectures, whether video or written, will likely remain an important element of online classes, but instructors and course designers should explore multiple avenues to content delivery with a focus on bringing in opportunities for active learning.

In closing, I’ll leave you with this short video from Derek Muller, founder of Veritasium, on developing effective videos.


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