Is it live or is it Professor Gradgrind?
June 24th, 2010


A recent study conducted in the USA reports that students who watched lectures online instead of attending in-person classes performed slightly worse in [a] course over all. This study contradicts earlier ones –including a twelve-year long study– that favour online learning performance over live learning, so to speak.

But, as with so much research, the devil—or meaning– is in the details. The more recent study shows that in-person instruction was especially more effective for Hispanic students, male students, and lower-achieving students in particular. Clearly, those who benefit most from in-the-flesh instruction are the learning-neediest or the most likely to respond to personal attention. So it is with everything, isn’t it?

Such studies are starting to proliferate as tightening university budgets are encouraging more and more off-site online modes of delivery. And so it is that we will probably be debating the merits of the real vs. the virtual professor for some time. Personally, I know it’s hard to emote when you are not making eye contact or feeding from the juice of your audience. Such healthy vampirism is the way really good lectures work. You suck the energy from everyone you are talking to, but instead of consuming it whole and move on you recycle it back into the room, reconstituted with even better stuff in it. Performing a lecture for a camera just doesn’t generate the same kind of chemical dynamic, to put it mildly, and it is a rare speaker who can simulate the blood-red experience of really being there. That’s what actors get paid to do, of course, and I can’t think of any who have PhDs. Besides, would one really want to take a class from Jody Foster?

In the Paleolithic era, I was enrolled as an undergraduate at McGill University in a huge undergraduate film studies course, much of it delivered from a large white screen. I can’t recall exactly what percentage of the lectures was delivered that way, but I do clearly remember that there were quite a few. To be honest, I don’t recall anything about the actual lectures except the giddy audience experience of being among hundreds of equally disrespectful peers. When the talking head-prof came up on screen, most of us hissed and tittered, while several exhibitionists actually threw paper airplanes (does anyone make those anymore?) at the screen. I used to go home at the end of the day and tell my horrified parents about the general hilarity that had ensued for an hour of what should have been valuable tuition-money time. Sometimes it’s a wonder any of us even passed the course. But, then, who was doing the grading in a class of over 400 people? Or who would have known any of us from our simulacra?

Not surprisingly, in view of all this, I do recall many of the in-person lectures. The course was being delivered –or is it “arranged”?–by a well-regarded prof, and you can bet that when he actually appeared to tell us something about the magical beginnings of the documentary film tradition we were attentive, not a heckling paper-plane tosser in sight. The contrast between the in-person and the canned lectures was radical. Sometimes I wondered whether the whole course was actually an elaborate experiment being conducted behind one-way mirrors or if we were being secretly filmed watching films. Perhaps.

That was then, of course, and today the whole definition of distant delivery has changed. Students do not need to gather in a large classroom to watch a film of a prof lecturing. They simply have to boot up a laptop in their own kitchens. Indeed, the overwhelming weight of current research shows that students taking online courses actually perform as well or even better than those who attend classes on campus. The jury will probably be out on this for some time.

One thing is clear: a lot depends on the willingness and the capacity of a student to learn—as much as it depends on a prof’s ability to deliver, electronically or otherwise. That’s not an earth-shattering observation. Consider it an invitation to channel some of that research effort into solving world poverty.


Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

One Response to “Is it live or is it Professor Gradgrind?”

  1. Lisa Charlong says:

    Most (?) adult learners learn by methods other than the traditional lecture style so online education suits this group, especially where colleagues discuss subject matter through chat or email. The professor is still required – to ask questions that stimulate discussion and promote critical thought and to add their expertise to the creation of knowledge.

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