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.


Let Your Learners Pull

I’ve recently seen a few articles about push vs pull learning, and I realized this is a good way to describe my own approach to course design and instruction. To put it simply, push learning is instructor driven and pull learning is student driven. A lecture is push. Using Code Academy to learn coding is pull. Motivation is a key indicator of learning and when we seek out our learning our motivation is very high – we simply want to learn something and so we do.

Pull learning is student-centered. Learners have the opportunity to learn what they want, how they want and when the want. There is, of course, a huge difference between the types of things we seek out on our own to learn and formal courses. It would be hard to argue that students in a college algebra course should be allowed to learn what they want. Instructors will likely argue that there are certain things that students simply need to learn in such a course. But pull learning is not incompatible with formal courses and the online environment is ideally suited to promoting this. For example, rather than offering students a lecture (in text or video) or a textbook, course developers can focus on providing multiple avenues to the content and let students choose their own path. For example, in our college algebra class, we can include a short instructor video, links to other online vides such as those on Khan Academy, online tutorials, articles, pictures, graphs, charts, and even things like forum discussions. By doing this, we let students pull out the resources that work best for them. We also encourage them to seek out additional resources. By linking to a forum, for example, we might encourage some students to join conversations or seek out new information.

Content is only half (or less) of the learning process. If we only focus on content we are really only asking students to recall that content over a short period of time. Such learning often lacks meaning for students. Learners also need to apply, evaluate, create, etc. in order to cement learning and develop understanding. Providing meaningful opportunities to apply learning is essential. Pull learning is ideal here. Instead of just focusing on accessing content, we provide students a reason to pull out the information they need.

Rather than worksheets or homework problems, for example, we can design activities that provide a lot of student choice and opportunities to apply learning in personally meaningful ways. Below is an example activity related to quadratic equations. In a push model of learning, students are often given a lecture or worked examples and then asked to work a bunch more on their own. This type of learning is rote. Student may have little motivation beyond earning a grade and may not even develop real understanding. In other words, they can solve problems in contrived situations but cannot determine when and how to apply their learning in unique and real world scenarios.


The value of objects can change greatly over time. A 10 year old car will be worth much less than what it was when new but a 50 year old car could easily be worth more. Many things become collector’s items and increase in value. Others become largely worthless such the Godfather DVD box set which sold for well over $50 in 2001 and now is worth little more than 4 bucks. On the other hand, old vinyl records can sell for thousands or even millions. This change in value over time can be represented using a quadratic equation, and a well constructed (i.e. based on good and reliable data) quadratic can be used to predict future value. Select a collectable (a particular car, album, comic, baseball card, book, coin, stamp, etc.) of interest to you, research its value trends and then construct and solve a quadratic equation to represent the change in value over time. Here is one example that illustrates this.

An activity like this encourages students to seek out a mix of information to help them solve a real problem related to something they find personally interesting (because they can choose it). Students now have a reason to pull content and apply it. Motivation is higher, learning is more meaningful and understanding deeper.

Developing activities like the one above requires both subject matter expertise and knowledge of adult learning and instructional design. Some faculty may be experts in both, but most will benefit from working with an instructional designer who understands student-centered, project-based and pull learning.

Engaging Students in Online Discussions

The class discussion has been an integral element of teaching since at least as far back as Socrates. Online courses often attempt to recreate the experience and every LMS has tools to facilitate discussions. However, online discussions are fundamentally different from classroom discussions. Perhaps most obvious is the need for all students to participate in the online discussion. While students in face-to-face classes often elect to only observe, active participation in online discussions is usually necessary and may be the only way for instructors to know students are actually attending class. This has lead to the “post once, reply twice” mantra so often used in online discussions. There are several problems with this.

First, we need to recognize that there are at least three different ways in which discussions might be used in a class. The first happens when instructors want students to answer questions that are more closed in nature or otherwise provide some feedback to the instructor. If most students will be posting similar information then this isn’t really a discussion. If the discussion tool is used for this, then students begin to see these “discussions” as rather pointless. There isn’t much one can say in a reply to another student that isn’t just repetitive and of limited value. It might be better to have students write a short essay or homework activity that is simply handed in.

The next form of discussion occurs when the instructor asks an open-ended question or for an opinion about a course topic. This is often similar to the type of discussion the instructor might use in a physical classroom. This is certainly an acceptable use of the online discussion, but “post once, reply twice” will likely undermine the effectiveness of the discussion. Students who might not have participated in a physical class now have to come up with something to say in three different ways. What often happens is students do not really engage in the discussion but look for something they can easily agree with and add a brief comment that might be little more than a rephrasing of what the original poster said. Students become “hit and run” participants who look for the easiest path to a couple posts and then disappear from the rest of the discussion. Now, instead of a few students who might have carried on an effective and engaging in-class discussion, many students are adding clutter and students and the instructor have to dig to find the real meat of the discussion.

The third approach is much less common but potentially the most powerful. For lack of a better term, I’ll call this the student-directed discussion. Instead of the instructor asking the questions, students are given a task. For example, in a course on technology and ethics I asked students to search the web for examples of something they felt was an unethical use of technology. Students had to find an original topic (i.e. if someone else posted on the same idea already the student had to find something else), explain the ethical dilemma as they saw it, and discuss their personal reaction. By way of example I shared the story of a student charge with academic misconduct for running a Facebook study group. With this type of discussion, every student has to post something original and natural discussions form when students are intrigued by something, disagree, or are outraged. Of course, a “post once, reply twice” requirement might be okay here, it still results in truncated discussions as students do the minimum and feel they are done.

In order to really encourage ongoing discussions, I have made a few changes that have so far been effective and well-received. First, classes run Tuesday – Monday. I found that many students wait until the weekend to do their discussions and that left little time for follow-up comments. Perhaps a Wednesday – Tuesday approach would be even better. I also require students to have their initial post done by Wednesday. This ensures all students have time to review and respond and even come back to see who responded to them. The result is actual back and forth discussions. Finally, I also changed how discussions are graded and my expectations. There are two key aspects to this. First, students are asked to “post once, reply as needed”. By leaving the number of replies open, students are free to focus more on the discussion and less on a numeric requirement. Second, instead of earning the required points each week, students have the whole semester. In other words, student engagement could ebb and flow (just as it would in a physical class) depending on their interests and weeks with higher numbers of replies would earn more points and offset weeks with fewer replies. A class might have 15 discussions with a total of 375 points during the semester, but earning 10 points one week and 50 the next is perfectly fine. It might seem like this would open the door to students gaming the system and doing very little and then flooding the final discussion or two in order to make up for all their missing points. However, having done this now in five or six different courses over the past three to four years I can say that has not been an issue. In fact, more often than not students end up doing MORE than the minimum each week. I frequently have students posting 5-8 times or more during a discussion. Here is a document I created to explain this process to students. So far it has been highly successful and I can’t imagine I will ever go back to a “post once, reply twice” model.

One last thing. While I do have a rubric for assigning points to discussion posts, I almost always give students full points (unless late or really doesn’t add much to the discussion). Again, while it might seem like students would just start to add short comments with little substance, the opposite is more often the case. Post length does vary, but many students end up writing some fairly lengthly comments. I think this is because students are actually engaged in the discussions and not simply going through the motions.

The Role of Confusion

For a number of years, I have been teaching a class on technology integration for pre-service K12 teachers. The class asks students to step outside their comfort zone and explore ways to use technology in ways that are meaningful, authentic and student centered. A few years ago I realized that student expectations were having an effect on how they perceived and responded to classes (that should be obvious, right?).  In order to help align student expectations with those of the course, I added a paragraph to the syllabus called “the role of confusion”. I only have anecdotal data, but based on my observations of students, discussions with them and how they respond to the various projects it would appear that this one change has had a fairly large impact. I have observed that students are much more willing to try new things and much less likely to give up early. In fact, on several occasions a student would email me saying they were having problems with something only to reply back a few hours later to say they figured it out. Instead of giving up and waiting for help, students persevere, which leads to more meaningful learning as well as more confidence.

I should point out that I do make a point of discussing this role of confusion with students and refer back to it often in assignments and class discussions. In other words, it is now an intentional design element of my classes. Below is the text I use. Students need to be reminded that learning takes effort, and I would encourage everyone to adopt something similar.

Students often believe that being confused is somehow a bad thing. There is a belief that learning is supposed to be easy and if you have to work hard you are somehow doing it wrong. How many times have you heard, “I barely studied for that test and still got an A” or similar comment? This is probably more a sign of a poor test than an exceptional student. The truth is that learning is hard and MUCH more than simply remembering stuff for a test. Real learning takes a great deal of effort and no one gets it right the first time, or second, or third… It’s a process in which we gradually move from a state of confusion (a necessary starting point if learning is the goal) toward less confusion. Total understanding is unlikely in just one class or semester. I teach this stuff and am still confused at times and just when I start to see the light everything changes. Get used to it. Therefore, a lot of what we do in this class isn’t about being right or wrong. It’s about embracing confusion and engaging in the process. Your discussions/assignments/projects in this class are primarily graded on engagement not perfection. Of course, this doesn’t mean any old thing is good enough. I expect to see serious attempts, critical thought and meaningful and well thought out assignments as well as a high level of engagement. Assignments are fairly open-ended giving you opportunities to tailor them to your interests. Doing things last minute will likely not show the above and your grade will reflect that. However, stepping outside your comfort zone, trying new things, etc. and finding that it didn’t work (or did) is perfect. It’s the process, not the product, that is important. I will try to expand on this throughout the course. For now, just become comfortable with the idea of being confused and accept that it’s a good thing. Confused? Good.

Rethinking Assessment in Online Classes

“Will this be on the test?”

If you have spent any time in a classroom you have likely heard this question. The implication being that if it isn’t important enough to be on the test then it isn’t important enough for the student to remember. As teachers, however, we take issue with that notion. Everything is important, but it cannot always be boiled down to easily graded test questions. In fact, it is often the deeper, and usually more muddy, concepts that are the most important but also the least conducive to testing. The result is that when assessing students we tend to gloss over these concepts in favor of more easily measurable indicators of learning. This is particularly true in online classes, which are mediated by Learning Management Systems (LMS) that often have limited tools for assessment. For example, all major LMS support a variety of quiz and test tools ranging from true/false, to multiple choice, to short answer and essay questions, but there are few alternatives beyond these testing approaches. Online teachers may be better off foregoing these built in tools and rethinking how assessment in an online class can and should look.

There are a number of reasons why online tests are a bad idea. First, unless proctored, we cannot really have any faith in the results. Students have a world of resources available to them and even when the LMS can lock out the browser students still have access to their smartphone, tablet or other computer. Proctored or open book tests are not really the answer either. The problem here isn’t really the potential for cheating. The problem is that tests are simply a poor measure of learning. At best, they measure students’ ability to apply learning to contrived situations and at worst simply test recall. In conversations with students, they frequently admit to cramming for tests and then immediately forgetting the information once the test is over. The result is a mismatch between the high level of learning, critical thinking and problem solving we want to see in our students and the low level way in which we measure it.

One solution is to rethink assessment and develop practical and meaningful alternatives to testing. To demonstrate, below are three different approaches to online assessment (which can be used in traditional classes as well). When presenting such alternatives, the first complaint I usually hear from instructors is that they are time-consuming to develop and grade. True, a high level of student thinking and engagement is going to require a higher level of instructor involvement. However, this does not have to mean more work for overworked teachers. There are alternative approaches to grading, and there is also a shift in the work load that often accompanies a shift in pedagogy. Test-based classes tend to require a lot of upfront work on the part of the instructor such as preparing tests and delivering lectures. When moving from a teacher-centered pedagogy to a student-centered pedagogy much of the work is also shifted from front-end to back-end. In other words, much of the teacher-centered work is shifted to students freeing up time for more meaningful assessments.

These three alternative approaches to online assessment took place in various settings:

  • an undergraduate course on technology and ethics at a major university,
  • an undergraduate course in energy technology at a community college, and
  • a graduate course in teacher education at a major university.

I currently teach a course on technology and ethics that also fulfills a university requirement for a writing intensive class. As such, the course does involve writing a couple papers. The first paper students write is an initial investigation into a technology and its potential ethical implications (e.g. digital piracy, cloning, artificial intelligence, etc.). For this paper, students are given a choice between a traditional opinion paper, a multi-media project incorporating a mix of text, video, audio and graphics, or an analysis of a popular movie (e.g. Wall-E, I Robot, The Island). Students also have choice on their topic and, of course, the resources used in their analysis (although they are required to use at least one class reading as well). While it would be possible to develop a test over the various ethical principles explored, it isn’t their recall of the ethics that is important but their ability to apply ethical reasoning to a chosen technology. Their papers/projects also go through a peer edit process that allows for a variety of feedback. Peer editors are encouraged to ask questions if something doesn’t make sense, offer suggestions to improve clarity or flow, and provide positive comments when something is particularly clear, interesting or well-reasoned. This also provides students an opportunity to see how other students write, formulate arguments and cite evidence. I grade the final draft and provide additional formative feedback that will help them as they think about and write the second paper. In this way, I not only assess their current level of understanding, but also help them develop their critical thinking.

While working as an instructional designer at a community college, I worked with faculty in a clean energy technology program to develop online and hybrid courses as part of a federal grant. Some faculty had already begun to use online assessments in their face-to-face class. These tended to involve multiple-choice tests over concepts covered in class or course readings and as a result really only tested student recall of the concepts. Taking such a test online meant it had to be proctored as answers could easily be looked up. In a particular engineering safety course, test questions involved, for example, identifying the type of fire extinguisher needed for different fires. The alternative assessment we developed was a site survey. Students selected a publicly accessible building (library, school, office, restaurant, etc.) and after obtaining permission performed a survey of the various safety aspects including exits, fire suppression, and evacuation plans and wrote up their analysis and suggestions. Rather than simply focusing on recall of concepts, students had to apply concepts and evaluate the effectiveness of the implementation. This type of assessment is particularly well suited to an online class as students have complete flexibility regarding when and where to do the project and the write up could be submitted as text through email or the LMS dropbox or through more creative means such as a video or via any of the various web tools out there. This approach to assessment is also in line with adult learning theory in that it is meaningful and relevant to the student. They see the value in applying their learning to real world situations that mirror the actual work they may do after graduation. The assessment can also be collaborative. Students can conduct the site assessment in small groups discussing their findings as they go, and then each student submit their own analysis. This project also allowed for an alternative approach to grading. While the instructor did ultimately assign a grade, students initially evaluated each other and once again had to apply their learning to identify misunderstanding or gaps in the analysis.

While working as an adjunct technology integration instructor for a post-baccalaureate K12 initial licensure program, I developed an entirely project-based course. Students explored state standards, wrote objectives and developed lessons that integrated technology in meaningful and transforming ways. Each project was a practical lesson that could be used in their future classrooms and provided an opportunity to assess a mix of student learning including: aligning objectives and standards, aligning assessments and objectives, instructional strategies, design of student-centered learning environments, and meaningful technology integration. Projects were often shared with peers providing these soon-to-be teachers with a variety of practical ideas.

Project-based learning certainly isn’t new, but it also isn’t overly common – especially in online classes which are often reluctantly taught by instructors who would rather teach in a classroom. As a result, these online classes tend to mirror their face-to-face approach, which may not transfer well to an online environment. These classes often need to be redesigned for effective online delivery, and one aspect of such a redesign should be a rethinking of online assessment.

It’s Time to Rethink Electronic Whiteboards

It seems everywhere you turn people are talking about interactive whiteboards as though they are some sort of revolutionary device that will reshape education. It isn’t the first time. Radio, TV, VHS, pretty much any technological advance you can think of was at one time heralded as the future of education. Today, no one would seriously suggest that using radio or DVDs (the technology not the use of video) has some sort of profound impact on learning (some might even argue that watching DVDs actually detracts from learning). Despite the flash in the pan history of technological gadgets, the interactive whiteboard is now the newest “revolution”. However…


Here is a video promotion of SmartBoards by the company itself. This is their own video so you would think they would go out of their way to showcase their product. As they are promoting these as educational tools, be sure to note the pedagogical model presented and degree of student interaction.

While the video mainly focused on the technology (which, granted, is quite impressive), the teaching we see is largely teacher-centered. There is no student interaction (with each other) at all. The few times a student actually uses the technology it is done while the rest of the class looks on and basically does nothing. Even the level of thinking among students who do use the board is quite low – dragging an object or circling something. Wow, challenging.  Given the overall lack of interaction here I think we should start calling these “electronic whiteboards” in order to avoid confusing student interaction with simply using an electronic tool. I certainly wouldn’t call an electric drill an “interactive power tool”. It simply does what I tell it to and does not interact with me.

An alternative to expensive electronic whiteboards in the truly interactive $2 whiteboard. In the article below, be sure to note the level of student interaction in the second video.


These $2 interactive whiteboards actually do promote and encourage a great deal of student engagement, collaboration, problem solving and critical thinking. Actually, the boards do not really promote anything. They simply provide a convenient space for students to explore their thinking. I’ve been using these for a couple of years now and the results have been impressive. Students love using them. They actively collaborate. Leaders emerge. They use their phones to archive their thinking for later reference. The boards become outlines for use during presentations (we set them in the back of the room so the students end up looking at the audience rather than notes in their hands).

A Modest Proposal

If you walked into a classroom today that still had a chalkboard on the wall you would likely be taken back a bit and might actually be tempted to mock such out-of-date furnishings. Electronic whiteboards are the modern alternative, and I suspect we will continue to see them added to old schools as they are upgraded and used by default in new schools.

However, cash-strapped schools should probably consider how best to spend limited funds. Improving student learning should be a primary focus and there is simply no evidence that moving from chalkboards, to whiteboards, to electronic whiteboards has any impact on learning. As Clark (1983, 1994) has repeatedly argued, it isn’t the media that influences learning but the instructional strategies. Shifting from a teacher-centered model, which electronic whiteboards tend to promote, to a student-centered pedagogy does correlate with student engagement and learning. Money that might have gone toward expensive electronic whiteboards could be used to buy laptops or tablets that have a wide variety of uses and will be used by students. And with the money saved, classrooms could also have a stack of $2 whiteboards on hand.