Higher Education

the beginning and ending of knowledge… 50 minutes at a time?

Can we really be having this conversation? In the Chronicle an article on the shortening of lectures for online delivery. One of the first points we’re going to try to make in teaching networked communication is that different media require different rhetorical strategies.

Does this seem like a concept that is too difficult for professors to grasp? Apparently so.

Obviously there are historical forces that resulted in the 50-minute lecture. I assure you it wasn’t the result of extensive research into the most effective length of presentation. So let’s be clear.

  • 150 minutes a week: arbitrary
  • 14-week semester: arbitrary
  • 124-credit bachelor’s degree: arbitrary
  • 36-credit major: arbitrary

Arbitrary here means these divisions of time bear no relationship to the learning experience. Moving to online courses creates a situation that is no less arbitrary, but no more either. Also there’s no requirement that online video lectures be shorter. In fact, you can make them longer, a lot longer, if you believe that’s what would be effective.

The point, as I see it, is that you have more choice over the length of lectures.

If you think that giving long, difficult, informationally-dense lectures is the best pedagogy then go for it. As always, many faculty remain sternly opposed to any notion of being rhetorical. They see trying to communicate as an intellectual betrayal of some kind.

The real problem I see here is the serious lack of pedagogic professional development for professors. Sure, there are great professors in every discipline. But I think that teaching is largely naturalized. You learn from watching professors as a student, then teaching with professors as a TA. Teaching in most disciplines follows the same practices at every campus across the country. These practices are not offered as a choice since there aren’t really any alternatives.

Then along comes online courses and blended courses and suddenly there is a very significant alternative for every professor in every discipline. But there are few tools in most disciplines for making an informed choice. The result is this declaration of shock to the notion that there may be some choice in how to teach: that 50-minute lectures are not some god-given standard.