There's no denying that the lecture model has long had a stranglehold on higher education, especially the popular undergraduate college courses that enroll hundreds of students per semester. But a few new technologies stand to change that forever. As new web-enabled technologies continue to be integrated into university curriculums, traditional lecture-based teaching may not be long for this world, at least in its current form.
Online education is not new, but the way it's being implemented is. Flipped classrooms, MOOCs (massive open online courses) and telepresence platforms are among the upstarts that could give on-campus lectures a serious makeover.
Flipped learning, popularized by startups like Khan Academy, is a hybrid model that turns the lecture-based model on its cranium by integrating online materials. With flipped learning, homework that has traditionally been done at home would be done during class time, while classwork would be expanded to include collaborative discussions, special group projects, field trips and other engaging activities. For example, in a physics course, more class time would be devoted to conducting hands-on experiments to help students fully understand the subject matter.
In an interview with Fast Company, Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, commented on how technology is changing the traditional lecture-based classroom:
We can question whether class time should be used for lectures. In the current paradigm, students don't need to review a concept until they get really deep mastery. Now we can move to a model like that.
If technology can take some of that passivity out of the classroom, if it can off-load some of the stuff that the teacher has to do, it liberates the teacher and peers to interact with each other.
While Khan Academy caters primarily to the K–12 communities, Khan's ideologies can just as easily be applied to higher education settings.
MOOCs, the mostly free, noncredit classes available to anyone with an Internet connection and a hunger to learn, continue to expand rapidly. Major MOOC platforms edX (founded by Harvard and MIT) and Coursera (founded by Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller) have recently added a slew of new U.S. and international universities to their rosters in a quest to help democratize higher education.
Some universities are even beginning a trial run of integrating for-credit MOOCs into their standard curriculums. In a deal spurred by California governor Jerry Brown, MOOC startup Udacity partnered with San Jose State University to produce a pilot program offering basic college math classes completely online for $150 a pop, significantly cheaper than equivalent on-campus courses.
Although the pilot is limited to 300 students, it could lead to more high-demand, lecture-based classes going the way of the MOOC. Unlike on-campus classes, or even most traditional online courses, MOOCs aren't restricted by class-size limits. Students may no longer have to worry about being wait-listed in what Timothy White, chancellor of the California State University system, refers to as "bottleneck" classes, and universities could potentially save funds in their tight budgets by enrolling thousands of students in one course.
In a blog post about the pilot, Udacity co-founder and CEO Sebastian Thrun remained optimistically cautious in his expectations on the future role of MOOCs in higher education:
There may be a temptation to consider MOOCs the silver bullet of higher education. However, in the 1960s, we thought of TV as the solution, and it wasn't. If MOOCs are to stay, we need patience, diligence, an ability to think critically about our own work and to continuously improve.
While flipped classrooms and MOOCs could reduce or eliminate the need for the traditional lecture altogether, other online-learning models could help it shine. Education-focused teleconferencing platforms from Skype and Cisco are stretching the horizons of what a traditional on-campus lecture can be.
Since its launch in 2011, Skype in the Classroom has enabled instructors to co-teach a class while thousands of miles apart, take their students on a virtual field trip to the world's tallest points and introduce their class to entirely new cultures through shared lesson plans and projects.
Meanwhile, Cisco has brought its telepresence expertise into the classroom, with a new development known as the Cisco Connected Learning Experience. The platform is currently being implemented by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business to connect MBA students at its main Philadelphia campus with students at its San Francisco branch. Through the use of high-definition, theater-sized projector screens and other advanced virtual technologies, Wharton teachers and students can, for all intents and purposes, be in two classes at once.
As Fast Company notes in its Co.Exist coverage of the new virtual classroom, this could stave off arguments that MOOCs and other online technologies will render face-to-face campus lectures obsolete. It's no Star Trek hologram, but bold technological moves like this could be just the refresh lectures need.
Should every college teacher rush to flip his or her classroom, join the MOOC movement or beam in at-a-distance classrooms using cutting-edge telepresence software? Is the traditional lecture doomed? The answer is unclear; it’s largely a decision that should be made by individual colleges and professors. One thing's for certain: Technology gives educators and students more tools to promote the exchange of knowledge, and that isn’t a bad thing.