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Exploding the Lecture

November 15, 2011

Personal narrative plays an important role in Mike Garver’s teaching style. Garver, a professor of marketing at Central Michigan University, often uses anecdotes from his own life in his lectures, according to one of his students. “It’s a good way to, in his words, ‘Put a movie in your mind,’ ” says Mike Hoover, a senior at Central Michigan, who is currently taking Garver’s course in market research.

So when I ask Garver about his efforts to excise the lecture from the classroom and blow it to smithereens, he naturally begins telling me a story. In this one, it’s 1998, and Garver is fresh out of grad school and into his first teaching job, at Western Carolina University. He’s giving a lecture on “the principles of marketing” to 100 students. The head of teacher development at Western Carolina is observing, but Garver isn’t nervous. On the contrary, he’s in the zone.

“I gave one of the best lectures I had ever given,” Garver says. “It just flowed. The students were into it, I had funny jokes — I thought, 'This is the best I’ve ever been, and the head of teachers is evaluating my teaching, and I am kicking ass!' ”

After class, Garver remembers his supervisor affirming the young lecturer’s confidence -- before blowing it apart. “He basically said, ‘Mike, that was a great lecture. Have you ever heard of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning?’ ” Garver had not. His supervisor explained Benjamin Bloom’s 1956 formulation, which divides learning into higher and lower orders and emphasizes the importance of putting learned ideas to work.

“Even though your lecture was spectacular,” Garver recalls his mentor saying, “you’re down here at the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy.” He challenged Garver to infuse higher orders of learning into his teaching methodology. “I have been chasing that dream ever since,” Garver says.

Now, with the arrival of technology that allows him to easily record his lectures at home, slice them into easily digestible morsels, and make them available for students to watch online prior to class meetings, Garver says he has finally caught up to that dream.

I tell Garver it’s obvious that he is in marketing. He laughs and says he’ll take the compliment.

This is how Garver lectures these days: He gives his lectures alone, at home, on his own time, into a microphone. “I get fired up with coffee, I go into the studio, and I just start cranking out lectures,” he says. Garver, who compares himself to Ray Charles in his ability to nail the first take, says he does not have a hard time summoning charisma in the absence of a live audience. Listening to the boom and lilt of his voice through the telephone, I believe him.

 

 

After he’s done recording, Garver edits the lectures into shorter mini-lectures, ranging from 5 to 29 minutes. Then he posts the lectures to Central Michigan’s iTunes U site, along with accompanying PowerPoint slides. Garver instructs his students to listen to one or more of the mini-lectures in preparation for each class (he only devotes a week of the syllabus to reading marketing textbooks — a genre he describes, in general, as jargon-choked “translation exercises,” useful primarily for curing insomnia).

Garver says he believes that even disciplined minds have trouble focusing on something as dense as a lecture for more than 15 minutes. When he first began recording lectures and assigning them outside of class, Garver says his students sometimes found it even more difficult to stick with the lectures amid the distractions of home than in the classroom, where they were at least a captive audience. “They’d say, ‘Oh my God, that hour-long lecture — what were you thinking?’” Garver says.

That’s when he started using his digital cleaver more judiciously. “I’m actually thinking of cutting the 15-minute lecture into smaller chunks,” he says, “and I think I can.” Garver’s goal is to turn his lectures into albums of two- to five-minute tracks.

At the beginning of each class, Garver uses classroom clickers to quiz students on the concepts covered in the previous night’s lectures. For the rest of the class period, Garver typically divides the students into teams and asks them to apply those concepts to specific use cases. “What we can focus on is the upper end of Bloom’s Taxonomy,” he says — that is, hands-on learning.

“I kind of gave up lecturing in the classroom,” Garver says, adding that he was tired of having to choose between introducing ideas and letting students try putting them into practice. “There was never enough time for both,” he says.

The theoretical ideal Garver is using as his guiding star is a half century old; and the technology he is using is not particularly new, either. But his eagerness to eject the lecture from the classroom entirely is still somewhat rare among professors who teach large, face-to-face classes.

Central Michigan has made a push to make lecture-capture technology available to faculty, and many use it, says Brian Roberts, an instructional technologist at the university’s Faculty Center for Innovative Teaching.  However, nearly all of them “do what I call more of the ‘traditional’ or ‘basic’ lecture capture,” says Roberts: They give their lecture in class per usual, the only difference being that students can refer to the recording later when they are studying.

Aside from Garver, the idea to record and assign lectures outside of class has not gotten much traction at Central Michigan, says Roberts.

That could soon change. The popularity of Khan Academy, a fast-growing database of short educational videos — which has drawn raves from Bill Gates, among others — suggests that mini-lectures, delivered apart from the classroom, could pick up momentum in higher education.

“What you’re talking about here is likely to become increasingly popular, partly because it reflects that paradigm we’re starting to hear more discussion about: that is, 'flipping the classroom,'" says Mara Hancock, the director of educational technology services at the University of California at Berkeley. "Rather than pushing information at students, it might be better to use it in a way that helps them with higher-level learning."

One of the biggest obstacles to the proliferation of lecture capture has been reluctance by faculty to take the extra steps necessary to ensure that their lectures are properly captured and cataloged. At the annual Educause conference two years ago, officials involved in a major deployment at Purdue University said they had a hard time even getting faculty to press an "on" button at the outset of each classroom presentation.

Hancock says that her institution focuses on making it as convenient as possible for professors to use lecture capture. Garver's method requires a great deal more work: creating lecture recordings outside the classroom while finding constructive new ways to teach inside the classroom. "I think faculty will have to want to embrace that and go through the door knowing that it will be more work," says Hancock.

Such a shift might come as a relief to professors who find lecturing tedious, and perhaps an ill omen for professors who feel uncomfortable managing a lecture hall full of students without the aid of a script.

Paulina Lee, a senior in Garver’s market research course, says that full-length recorded lectures suffer the same problems as their ephemeral counterparts.

“Even if I were to sit through a lecture, or have a professor post a lecture [online], I really don’t want to be sitting in front of a computer for an hour taking notes,” Lee says.

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.

 

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