Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

The Synchronous Non-interactive Fallacy

Why do so many college professors suffer under the delusion that students should want to come to class when their instructor drones on and on in lecture, and does not provide opportunities for interaction?! In the LA Times article from January 16, 2006, “The iPod Took My Seat,” multiple professors are quoted who reveal their own belief in this fallacy. (Thanks to Derek Baird for alerting me to this.)

These statements from Terre Allen at Cal State Long Beach are revealing:

This last term, Allen experimented with posting extensive lecture notes online for her undergraduate course, “Language and Behavior.” One goal was to relieve students of the burden of furiously scribbling notes, freeing them to focus on the lectures’ substance.

Yet the result, Allen said, was that only about one-third of her 154 students showed up for most of the lectures. In the past, when Allen put less material online, 60% to 70% of students typically would attend.

When it comes to lectures with enrollment in the hundreds, universities usually don’t compel undergraduates to show up, or even lower their grades for poor attendance.

“This is one of the things that divide universities from high schools,” Allen said. “Students are expected to be personally responsible.”

Still, Allen said, to curb “the absentee approach to college,” she won’t put her lecture notes online this term.

Another example is this quotation in the article from Lee Ohanian, a UCLA economics professor:

Ohanian said he has found that “too much technology really leads to a passive learning environment” and spurs more absenteeism. He has cut back on posting lecture materials online and now provides extensive notes only for the most complicated topics.

If technology use is perceived as leading to a more passive learning environment, I contend this is a problem of PEDAGOGY, not TECHNOLOGY.

It is a fallacy to think students want to sit in a class where the dominant pedagogy is “synchronous, non-interactive.” As I have written previously, if a professor is going to employ a synchronous, non-interactive pedagogy, by all means, PLEASE PODCAST! (Then at worst it can become asynchronous, non-interactive.)

Mark Prensky writes and talks about digital natives and their responses to synchronous non-interactive pedagogy with the title, “Engage Me or Enrage Me.” Clearly in the cases cited here by the LA Times, the digital natives in these classrooms are enraged– or at least quite BORED, with a transmission-based model of “school as usual.” More fuel for the fire for the contentions I offered in “The Case for Digital Storytelling.”

Instead of interviewing Terre Allen and Lee Ohanian about podcasting in the context of traditional instruction, the LA Times should interview Nobel Prize winner Dr. Carl Wieman. His recent lecture at UBC on science education (available as a 1.5 hour podcast) makes this point quite persuasively: traditional, passive, lecture-based instruction DOES NOT WORK. Students tend to retain just 10% of what they hear in lecture. Weiman does not advocate for podcasting, he advocates for a science-based approach to studying teaching and learning, and a corresponding change in the pedagogical strategies instructors employ to help their students learn. I am fully supportive of those ideas, but I extend them further: If the instructor wants to lecture non-interactively, that can be fine: but please offer the lecture as a podcast as well. And don’t be disappointed or shocked when students don’t come to see and hear the lecture “live.”

When instructors and students DO meet face to face, it is the responsibility of the teacher (through the pedagogy he/she chooses to employ) to leverage the interactive potential of the face to face environment. By not coming to lecture classes, I think many students are “voting with their feet” on the importance of this professorial responsibility.

We need to remember the research which supports the following model of average retention rates, and change our own instruction accordingly:

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On this day..







6 responses to “The Synchronous Non-interactive Fallacy”

  1. Tom Hoffman Avatar

    While I agree with the overall thrust, to me, the nice round percentages in that pyramid have always smelled like they were pulled out of somebody’s butt. Do you know where those numbers come from (other than a 90 minute podcast)?

  2. Burks Oakley Avatar

    Wes – Right on! Yes, this is about pedagogy – not about technology. If there really was something of value in the synchronous session (the lecture), then students would attend.

    — Burks

  3. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    This is a great question Tom, I also have needed to chase down the original source for this. I have seen it cited as “National Training Center, Bethel, Maine” but never seen the original work.

    I added a link this morning to a citation, but this is a again a secondary citation:

    The original work is cited by Bruce Maxim in the following:

    National Training Labs. (1995). Learning Pyramid. Bethel, ME: Author.

    I am emailing him at the address listed on the top of the paper to find the original source, if I find it I’ll post it here. If anyone else knows please comment here also!

  4. Tom Hoffman Avatar

    Thanks for following up on this, Wesley.

  5. Patrick Dierschke Avatar

    I used tape recorders back in the day (1987-1991) to record lectures for review. Where was the outcry back then? I could have easily had someone take my recorder to the class, and I could have slept in. I am surprised this is such a big deal, other than it is putting the spotlight on canned courses that anyone could teach.

    Newsweek had a well-balanced article in November.

    American University professor Patrick Jackson thinks he may have found a way to harness the full potential of course casting and to keep classroom seats filled as well. Next semester, he’ll make his international-relations lectures and supplemental audio material required listening. Then he’ll dispense with what he calls being “the sage on the stage” altogether and use his lecture periods to guide mandatory group discussion instead. “It’s a new opportunity to ensure all my students have critical engagement with the material,” he says.

    Full article:

  6. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Thanks for the balancing article Patrick. The voices in higher ed when it comes to posting lecture notes and podcasts online are certainly not ALL negative.

    The rabbit hole on the research graphs goes deeper, however, Paul Richardson let me know that Work-Learning Research has put up a very interesting page questioning the validity of both Dale’s “Cone of Experience” and the retention rate pyramid, sometimes also shown as a graph.