Saturday, October 10, 2009

The formal large lecture problem

Have recently been re-reading a research paper by Boyle and Nicol from the Centre for Academic Practice, University of Strathclyde, on using electronic ‘classroom communication systems’ (CCS) to improve teaching and learning for large, lecture-based groups. What Boyle and Nicol point out is that - whatever the preference for small-group, informal and interactive learning – the reality is of larger student cohorts and fewer staff. In that context, where the large lecture is not going to go away, they suggest that a CCS can improve the quality of learning.

If you have used such a system, you will know that it is basically enables participants in a large lecture setting to respond to a multiple choice question via an electronic handheld device, with total results then immediately displayed to the whole class as some form of bar chart. The experience is an odd one, since it feels a bit like being in some sort of TV quiz show, but the effects can be powerful. Boyle and Nicol evaluated the introduction of CCS into mechanical engineering courses at Strathclyde, aimed at dealing with lecturers problems with mass-lecturing; described as “weak conceptual understanding, insufficient interaction and discussion and low levels of motivation.” (p.2)

Via a couple of variations - one based on peer and the other class-wide discussion – lectures were re-framed to ask key concept questions, with students first providing their individual responses via the CCS and then discussing both their own understanding and the whole group feedback with each other. Overall the students were strongly supportive that such techniques improved their understanding, interaction and motivation compared to traditional lectures. Teachers were able to quickly gauge how well the class understood concepts under discussion, and had a mechanism whereby students could compare their own progress to the overall distribution, which - together with group discussion - helped more students to ‘get’ the key concepts.

There are two points to add here. First, as Boyle and Nicol discuss, the bigger issue becomes less about the technology and much more about the design of the teaching and learning process. Lecture writing becomes must more a matter of developing a sequence of test construction, and the management of student interaction. So, again, we need to make more explicit and have ways of debating underlying pedagogic practices.

The second point is that such a study underlines the complexity of thinking about the design of learning spaces. This technology at least partially shifts the relationships between (presumed active) teacher and (presumed passive) students in a lecture theatre setting, without the space having to change at all. Or rather, it is the conceptual/social space which is changed in this case, not the physical one.

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