Evolution of The Lecture

(Originally Published Through Harvard's Teaching & Learning Center)

Why are there lectures? Could we live without them? Who ordered them anyway? These are important questions that many students have thought about vaguely, but they deserve more serious consideration.

The “lecture” derives from the medieval university. In those days, before the printing press, access to educational materials was defined by a model of scarcity: there was only one copy of the book! Therefore, an instructor would read an original source to students, who would take notes on it. This was just the most sensible way of disseminating information.

Of course, since that time, the amount of educational materials (and the ease of access to them) has increased dramatically, and lecturing has matured to include questions, discussions, chalkboard work, multimedia presentations, and so forth. Recently some classrooms have even adopted the blended learning techniques of ‘Flip Teaching’. Flip teaching is an educational methodology in which the introduction to material and learning through reading, videos, etc., is left for the students to do on their own time, allowing teachers to have more opportunity in the classroom to interact with students. So, what role should the lecture play in these technological times?

Harvard’s very popular Science and Cooking course is making an effort to incorporate educational videos to supplement lectures and other standard practices. In the same way that medieval lectures went through books verbatim, a method that became obsolete once printing copies of books was made simple, today’s ease of making videos about the details of calculations (or other rote, fact-based learning) can free up lecturers to focus on conceptual issues and interacting with students.

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