Will Lecture-Style Teaching at Universities Become Obsolete?

This question originally appeared on Quora.
Answer by Peter Baskerville, Vocational teacher

I agree with Jimmy Wales who predicts that 'dull lectures are doomed'

When I first discovered this simplistic summary of the learning experience below, it confirmed to me what I was already experiencing anecdotally in my classes in the early days of my teaching at a vocational college. In an effort to fulfil my role as a facilitator of learning, I have since set out to limit my lecture time significantly and fill the time with the more effective social and interactive-based learning methods listed towards the bottom of the pyramid.

While I still see great value in the 18 minute TED-style inspirational, entertaining, and thought provoking talk - I believe that in today's world, the long lecture as a skills/knowledge transfer option, is now obsolete.

The lecture, as a learning method, has been the mainstay of higher education for centuries in a period now generally defined as the 'Industrial age'. However, the economies of the world have changed dramatically in recent years as our global society is being transformed into the 'Information age.' If our educators are to prepare students economically and socially for the world that awaits them when they graduate from our colleges and universities, then we will also need a radically different approach to our teaching and learning.

Learning in the Industrial age

The lecture-based learning style of education was well suited to the industrial age society where individuals graduated from educational institutions into quite rigidly defined roles, mostly in large corporations. Research over the centuries had found that carrying out certain actions under certain circumstances would generally yield the desired results in these roles. So it was these findings that then informed the process of conditioning that was efficiently delivered by lectures.

Furthermore, the "one-to-many" homogeneous commodity of lecture-based learning, involving little or no audience participation, provided a cost effective delivery method for the educational institutions. The authoritarian nature of lecture-style conditioning also found a ready acceptance in the more militaristic hierarchical style of large corporate cultures that dominated the industrial age.

Job functions and required behaviors for successful engagement with the industrial age processes were predictable and involved minimal evolutionary change. To this end , job functions and behaviors became capable of research and dissemination via the education institution lecture model because the specialist knowledge was generally limited to these researchers, located within geographic constraints.  

Learning in the Information Age

Today, the clear planning and predictability of the industrial age has been replaced by an increased degree of uncertainty. Learners today need a greater level of flexibility and adaptability in order to survive and thrive in the information age. The collaborative knowledge sharing power of the Internet has made the smartest person in the room ... the room. Knowledge of 'the known' no longer empowers graduates in the information age as it did for the industrial age graduates. Only skills that can filter, process, interpret, and apply knowledge so that competency at performing new age tasks can be demonstrated, have relevance in the information age. Specifically those identified here

Graduates of the information age need different kinds of skills to those that served well, their 'rigid job description' predecessors in the industrial age. Information is no longer rare nor is it only valued and worthwhile if it is the product of research as crowd-based knowledge sharing platforms like Quora are demonstrating. Graduates today need to be taught new skills like collaboration, creativity and innovation, problem solving experimentation, social intelligence, novel and adaptive thinking, cross-cultural competency, new-media literacy, cognitive load management and virtual collaboration - none of which are ideally suited to lecture-based learning.

Graduates in the information age are finding that the society of 'managers and the managed' is being replaced by one where everyone manages, or owns, their own career. Graduates will more than likely find work in small egalitarian ad-hoc teams and partnerships of a few employees and may even chose to be engaged with more that one enterprise at a time, rather than find that 'job for life' in a large industrial age corporation. Information gleaned from the traditional lecture-based learning model has a limited ability to impart the skills needed to succeed in this new information age.

Education for the information age learners needs to adopt constructivist principles to empower learners through a more individualized and active learning experience. If we are to prepare graduates to be effective in the information age, the lecture-based approach that was well suited to the industrial age process of conditioning needs to be replaced by a more interactive empowerment approach. In the democratized and crowd-sourced information age, the previously highly valued attributes of 'what you know' and 'who you know' is being completely trumped by the 'what you can do.' In the Information age ... Skills rule!

Replacing lectures

Modern brain science suggests that human beings are not wired to learn passively. Research is supporting the view that learning is an active process that cannot occur without the involvement of the learner.

Rather than exclusively offering 'stand and deliver' lectures, educators should be more concerned with creating the conditions under which effective learning can take place and using the appropriate mix of tools and methods to do so. For effective learning to take place, a more constructivist and socially interactive approach needs to be adopted by educators, where students learn by actively engaging with realistic scenarios and then exchanging views and experiences with their peers and mentors under the guidance of a teacher.

Learning in the information age needs to change from being a homogeneous commodity delivered via the lecture-based model to a more customized experience tailored to the needs and characteristics of the individual. Knowledge alone without the ability or skill to apply that knowledge to the real world, will have little value in the information age. The Internet, as the facilitator of the Information age, never asks for your academic accreditation before allowing you to participate ... just your skills and ability to exploit its tools and processes.

Lectures were a central part of a didactic (instructional) and prescriptive (regulated) educational paradigm which enforced passive reception, whereas the future educational system will need to be based on active participation with discovery based and life-long-capable learning as its mantra. Here is a comparison I have constructed, comparing the past and future educational paradigms Learning in the 'Industrial Age' Vs 'Global Information Age'

A combination of non-lecture options outlined in the learning pyramid above, ably assisted by technology, is my bet on what replaces lectures for the vast majority of global learners in the future. Technology enhances skills transfer as it delivers near instantaneous access to vast quantities of information and learning materials and provides asynchronous communication channels that bridge both temporal and geographic distance. Technology's potential for delivering a personalized learning experience to individual learners is becoming more and more evident and its simulations that actively involve the learner to a greater degree than was ever possible in lecture-based learning is supporting the move away from lecture-based learning.

Skills-based learning

Finally, vital skills required for the information age are not learned effectively using a lecture-based knowledge transfer approach. They are most effectively taught one-to-one either by teachers, peers, or coaches following the
instructional approach that closely resembles the master/apprentice model that existed prior to the one-to-many industrial age teaching model:
  • D = Demonstrate
  • E = Explain
  • D = Demonstrate slowly
  • I = Imitate
  • C = Coach
  • T = Test
While the
instructional approach has its historical roots in the military and outdoor sports, I have found it to be equally effective as a skills transfer method in teaching IT, business and management skills especially when using tools to more efficiently and effective carry out a required task. Tools help us perform skills and these tools can be learned effectively using the DEDICT instructional approach. These tools can be developed as forms, checklists, requirement lists, analysis, presentations, cheatsheets, reports, communications, flowcharts, evaluation scorecards, scheduling charts, estimation calculators, action matrix and research reports. In this process, the teacher:
  • Demonstrates in real time the outcome the learner should be able to achieve at the end of the instruction. The demonstration is sequenced and performed once or twice in real time. Demonstration using a video capture allows students to observe the skills up close and from various perspectives (top, side, front ...)
  • Explains the context, purpose and importance of the skill as well as each step in the process so that the learner understands the relationship of each step with what goes before and after. Short, concise phrases direct the learner towards the intended outcome.
  • Demonstrates slowly so the learner has the time to focus on each step and knows what to look for. This step consolidates the students' understanding of the skill's context and the desired outcome and focuses their attention as they look for the demonstration of the key teaching points, explained in the previous step.
  • Imitate - where the learner practices the skill as they imitate the instructor. As the learner experiments with the new skill, they are encouraged to retain good strategies and disregard inappropriate ones. The goal here is to achieve early success in the application of the skill through simple responsive imitation which will make the learner feel more adequate, confident, and self-enhanced.
  • Coaches in a way that the learner can perform the task but fine tune their skills and be supported in the activity by a coach giving tips, feedback, and encouragement on the performance of the key teaching points. The coaching stage of the DEDICT model is implemented concurrently with the imitation stage. A coach's feedback has a positive impact on skill learning because it allows learners to confirm their own task-intrinsic feedback, it clarifies any confusion, and it motivates the learner to keep practicing.
  • Tests to see if the learner can demonstrate the skill in the same manner as was demonstrated to them at the start of the learning process. Here the learner 'goes solo' in specific and variable environments without active coaching and support. Test should take place in actual conditions where the skill will ultimately be used. Learners may well need to complete numerous practice sessions in variable environments until the skill becomes almost automatic and where conscious thought is not required. In this stage, the learner should be able to detect their own errors and make adjustments as required.
The DEDICT approach can also be appropriately applied to the Internet-distributed video, with learners using its pause, replay, and annotated features, supported by an online discussion/tutorial Q&A forum incorporating peers and experts. This advancement in technology is ensuring that twenty first century skills can be taught via the master/apprentice model in an effective way for the learner and equally, in an efficient way for the teacher ... ensuring its long term sustainability.