Social Media Lecture Experiment

April 22, 2013

I’ve very recently had the opportunity to be involved in a different kind of lecture here at the School of Computer Science and Informatics. For his final year project one of our third year students (Samuel Boyes) is assessing the use of modern technology, social networking and video conferencing as part of the traditional lecture. As I had already been asked a few weeks ago to give a guest lecture in Matt Williams’ module Fundamentals of Computing with Java, on the topic of code maintainability/readability, we were presented with a nice opportunity to test out Sam’s theories in an actual lecture.

So, rather than giving a dull, fifty-minutes-of-me-waffling-on-about-things-at-the-front-of-a-lecture-theatre lecture, we changed things around. Instead, I spoke for twenty minutes on the general theory aspects of the topic, and following that we were joined in the lecture by an external speaker, Carey Hiles of Box UK, who joined via a Google+ Hangout to deliver some material about his experiences of the topic in the real world. The students were encouraged to get involved during the lecture, tweeting with a particular hashtag and leaving messages in a dedicated facebook group. We could then wrap the session up by going over the questions posted by the students, putting them to Carey through the video conferencing.

This was very interesting, as it allowed us to include the experiences and knowledge of someone out in the real world within the lecture, adding some extra value to the course and introducing students to ideas that are used in practice. It’s the kind of thing that we should be doing more of, and that I’d love to include in more lectures in the future. There are people out there with relevant real world experience and a desire to talk to students and improve the quality of education. Given the availability of tools that allow people to get involved in lectures remotely, it seems like a no-brainer that this kind of thing could and should happen more often.

It’s also directly relevant as there seems to be a strong desire to increase the added value of attending lectures and to improve the quality of teaching. The Higher Education sector in the UK is undergoing something of a transformation at the moment. Massive unjustified increases in tuition fees have fundamentally altered the relationship between universities and students, increasing the feeling that students are customers of the the institution. As such, students are now (rightly) demanding much better customer service and value for money from their institution (caution: PDF link!). (We’ll leave aside for now how the the universities are having to increase the value for money and customer service without actually having any more money, as that’s another argument.)

Seen in a global context, this customer-institution relationship becomes even more important. Massive online open course (MOOC) providers such as Coursera, EdX, Udacity and the UK based FutureLearn (in which my employer, Cardiff University, is involved) are providing large numbers of people with free educational material and courses. It’s still not clear how universities will end up continuing to make money from teaching while also giving away all their material for free. Some MOOC providers will charge other institutions licensing fees to use materials, while it seems fairly plausible that instead of charging to access material, universities will instead start to charge for providing credentials and certification once the courses have been completed.

If that really is a large part of the future of higher education, will the traditional lecture continue to exist? Will universities need lecture theatres full of hundreds of students, when they can put their material online and deliver teaching to thousands of students without the physical presence? Will the traditional university institution continue to exist? It’s entirely possible that many institutions could stop teaching and focus purely on research. It’s more than possible that some institutions will close entirely in the face of competition of ‘free’ teaching from higher ranked institutions. Is consolidation of teaching delivery between fewer larger institutions a good thing?

Until we discover the answers to these questions over the next few years (decades?), there’s still a need to ensure that students feel they are getting value for money. We need to ensure that the institution continues to provide a reason for students to pay to attend lectures where material is delivered that could instead be had online for free. Value added is more important than ever and maybe sessions like the one we had last week could play a part in that.

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