Takuya Goro

Every teaching term I am asked whether I will record my lectures and put them online. I don’t. While it may be convenient for students to watch the lectures from anywhere and anytime, and perhaps even repeatedly, I remain unconvinced of the upside. Students often have most of the study material already provided online on Blackboard in my courses: the lecture slides (in three formats: for easy note-taking, iPad viewing, or paper-saving printing), in-class Excel exercises, tutorial exercises and their solutions, and supplementary material such as articles or formula sheets. Add to this today’s outstanding textbooks (much better than those available during my undergraduate studies) and a range of additional online resources from the textbook suppliers or third-parties. As a result, a number of students in my (undergraduate) course already believe that they are not missing anything any longer if they simply stay away from lectures and tutorials and choose to not attend. But easy learning is not necessarily good learning, and adding lectures for download may just worsen a disturbing trend in which students replace class time with other activities.

Don’t get me wrong, there may be very good reasons for students to stay away from the classroom: that obligatory internship that many potential employers want to see today on CVs, some extra-curricular activities that bring valuable leadership or other types of skills (e.g., working for rostra!), volunteering or charity work, or work or study experience abroad that will be hard to realize in post-university life. Recent changes in the Studiefinanciering may imply that more students need to work to pay their bills. As a result – just like professors sometimes feel squeezed between competing responsibilities – students may similarly feel pushed to accomplish more than “only” succeeding in their course work. Facing this trade-off, skipping a lecture or two may appear to be a quick and easy fix – in particular if all the material is anyways online! (Some may argue that I am taking a too benign view and that many students prefer less productive distractions in place of attending courses; if you were to believe so, feel free to call me an optimist.)

As an economist, it sounds at first appealing to think that students may simply make a rational choice when replacing potentially unproductive class time with some more productive task. So why not support students’ pressured lifestyle and personal productivity maximization by also providing lectures for download? And isn’t academia already shifting towards providing all content online so to reach a greater audience and to “democratize higher education” (keyword: massive open online courses; MOOCs)?

There are three reasons why I disagree:

  1. First, learning is hard work. Having everything at one’s fingertips at any time coupled with the freedom to postpone the grind is a potential recipe for educational disaster. It is not surprising that many Ivy League MBA programs have mandatory attendance policies, or that few educational experts would recommend online courses or distance learning over a traditional classroom experience. (One could even make the case that enforced attendance would treat students like adults: in the workforce, there are also strict limits on absence from the job.) Many other educational tools that rank among the most effective for successful learning are similarly disliked – e.g. frequent assignments, exams, or cold-calling students in class. Enabling students to opt out of the classroom by providing online lectures is just the opposite of those educational methods that work.
  2. Second, studies of online courses show very high failure rates (in the case of MOOCs, often in excess of 90%) and limited retention of course material. Those students that still pass are often those that would succeed in any situation, even without much instruction as they are often the already best prepared, the most motivated or with the most self-discipline. Of course it might be thrilling for a teacher to structure the course around those star students, to observe how quickly they absorb the material and to see the quick difference one can make in their level of understanding. But as a teacher, the real concern should not be about the educational outcomes of these “upper tail students”; one should worry about those that need the extra bit of help or, possibly, the extra piece of external motivation via assignments, exams or other graded deadlines that will ensure that they are reaching the course goals. Those opting out of attending classes are however not just the excellent students: every term I have ill-prepared students who are convinced that they can pull off the balancing act between class and external activities but in the end fail the course – a disservice to themselves, to other students who could not register to a full course, and to society which is still subsidizing their studies. Providing online lectures is likely to worsen that trend.
  3. Finally, if the more talented and disciplined students feel encouraged to not attend courses any longer due to online lectures, there are possibly also negative externalities for those remaining in class. Teachers start believing that the average student progresses slower, is less proactive, less disciplined or simply less interested. In an attempt to adjust the course material to the reality of the classroom, the teacher may then reduce teaching goals, demand less rigor or review material from earlier classes to make sure that everyone is on the same page. This can lead to frustration on instructors’ and students’ side. Alternatively, the lecturer stays the course with unchanged learning goals and grading standards but may face harsh student evaluations as the bright students who opted out of lectures choose to not fill out their teaching evaluations.

In my own experience there seems to exist a clear link between the availability and clarity of online course material (also whether everything covered in the exam is covered on the slides or in the book) and attendance. Trying to stem this tide, some instructors promise at the beginning of the course to drop “exam hints” throughout lectures to create an extra incentive to attend. Others outright require attendance. Statistical evidence supports the latter approach: a meta-study covering over 28,000 students from 90 independent samples concludes:

“Class attendance appears to be a better predictor of college grades than any other known predictor of college grades – including SAT scores, HSGPA, studying skills, and the amount of time spent studying. Indeed, the relationship is so strong as to suggest that dramatic improvements in average grades (and failure rates) could be achieved by efforts to increase class attendance rates among college students.” (Credé, Roch and Kieszczynka, 2010)

But do instructors really need to micro-manage students’ attendance in university courses that sometimes (as in my case) have hundreds of enrolled students? While new innovative techniques for efficient attendance-taking in large courses are currently developed, I personally wish that we will not have to go down that road and that students – who are adults after all – can continue to make their own choices.

The drive for putting more class material online coincides with an overall push for improvements in teaching quality. Besides online lectures, greater student engagement via “flipping the classroom”, inquiry-based learning or new teaching technologies (clickers, moderated discussion forums, blogs, wikis, twitter-based tools) are common buzzwords. Some of these may fit with the classroom reality (class time and size, the nature and amount of the material to be covered) others however will not. As many of these innovative techniques are also very time-intense to set up, they may also conflict with the heavy non-teaching workload of many professors while the value-added remains yet unclear: are students really learning better with, say, clickers, or do the costs (time, distraction) outweigh the potential benefits to both students and teachers? After all, a pedagogic experiment to “flip the classroom” may also go wrong and additional class time is lost to undo the damage while the outcome of a well-honed traditional course is a lot less uncertain. (If you are critical to the last paragraph, find here a list of previously abandoned teaching fads, or here a critical assessment of attempts to undo teacher-centered learning.)

Where does this leave us? In sum, while online lectures may work for small MBA courses with self-driven and active students, I believe that it is a lot less likely to work in larger undergraduate courses. I also believe that teaching overall has improved since I myself attended undergraduate studies more than a decade ago; I am less convinced that the average student today is however equally holding up his or her end of the bargain in the classroom. My personal experience suggests that greater convenience by providing class material online is met by a larger number of students choosing to substitute class time with other out-of-class activities. Instead of being responsible for their own learning experience, the call then goes to instructors to better engage students and to convince them that it is worth attending. But this does not address the real problem, namely that many students – perhaps in an understandable and rational attempt to stay ahead of their peers’ CVs – substitute class time with non-class activities. Putting video lectures online won’t solve that problem.