Save the Classroom Time for Discussions (Why to Lecture by MP3)

A few weeks ago, I bemoaned the fact that so many classes were canceled on Tuesdays this semester — Tuesdays being the two-hour sessions in a few of my content-focused classes — that I’d either have to hold make-up classes or drop some content from the course. (And holidays seem to sort of contradict the point of a holiday, right?)

A former co-worker, Allison Bill, pointed me at a concept I’d never encountered before, in this interview with José Bowen (the video in the linked page), in which he explains ideas expanded upon here; but one idea not explored deeply in the latter article, which he discusses in the former, is that of doing lectures as MP3s, which students can download and listen through before class (once, or, quite usefully for students like mine who are not native speakers of English, multiple times), so that the class “lecture” isn’t a lecture but instead is a “discussion time” that begins with: “Any questions?”

(I figured that, though I very occasionally use powerpoint in class — and always with no more than a few words  per slide, almost always full of images pertinent to the discussion — I tend to “teach naked,” or rather, without computers and technology, most of the time anyway. If I have that much in common with Bowen, maybe this idea of MP3 lectures would work for me to. It seems to work enough for The Teaching Company to stay afloat, after all.)

(I should add that I happen to agree with a number of the commenters about this whole idea that Powerpoint is necessarily bad; that kicking PCs out of classrooms is necessarily good. Lots of good profs use tech in the class; far more bad ones abuse it. But bad teachers will still be bad teachers  sans gadgets, right? And good ones will be lacking a tool in their arsenal. How people often use Powerpoint is pathetic, but it doesn’t mean it’s a bad tool in itself.)

Well, I decided to try it in one of my classes, and the payoff was mixed at first, but by the third MP3 lecture — a discussion of the connections between the Beat and the Hippie movements — I found the discussion time in the class was far more fruitful and useful to students — and much more well-used — than it had ever been before. They had more time to express their opinions, to have me revisit things that weren’t clear, raise questions about some of the things I had said, or explore areas of interest that I hadn’t gotten a chance to explore. Not just that, but the student-led panel discussion that followed the Q&A was really quite engaging and interesting, too. I was, in the end, impressed with what I saw.

So now I’m planning on using it in at least one, and possibly two, of my classes next semester. Any more than two, and it will become difficult — after all, each lecture takes about a couple of hours to record, and a little time more to mix down, upload, and so on. Beyond that, there’s the time and energy required — since lecturing outside class uses my time, even if it spares classroom time. I don’t think it’s practicable for all four of my courses. However, it is quite possible that I will use MP3 lecture-styled content in two or even more courses, to supplement classroom activities.

(For example, in a conversation class, I may use it to supplement group discussions by, for example, recording a discussion between myself and someone else in English, modeling certain skills or even phrases I want the students to pick up. I could also use MP3 mini-lectures to set up discussion topics so that students have some grounding for classroom discussions. And indeed, since I normally have students prepare recordings as part of their course homework — like rant videos they must upload to Youtube — it seems fitting I would also commit some of my course materials to recordings available online.)

A few of the things I’ve learned are that one must prepare just as rigorously as one would for a live lecture — no duh! — but also that one must try to get into the state one would get into for a live lecture. Lecturing to your own computer screen is lacking something, definitely, and I will be deleting the lectures from the website — I don’t want anyone to listen to them and mistake them for representative of how I would normally lecture.

Other than that, I am thinking I’d like to know how to set up a flash presentation so that students would have the capacity to watch the equivalent of a (good) powerpoint along with the presentation. This would be particularly useful for TEFL contexts, since students will enter the class with varying levels of language proficiency, and since the powerpoint will help them with unfamiliar words and concepts if done right. (When I say “done right” I’m thinking of this  flash presentation of Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture lecture, where core terms and a few pictures, along with very basic animation here and there, are used to highlight the main point throughout.)

One of the possible positives/negatives is that for basic lectures in courses one teaches time and again — my Public Speaking course, for example — one not only offloads the time wasted in non-interactive classroom activities (like the lecture), but also generates reusable content. This is positive in that, well, one wouldn’t have to re-deliver a lecture time and time again: presumably, once one has taught the course a few times and knows what things one needs to focus on and bring out, and once the MP3 version of the lecture has been done right, one could reuse the MP3 for a few years, supplementing with in-class tailoring of specifics.

(The basic principles of Public Speaking skills, after all, don’t change from year to year. It’s not as if new findings are going to suddenly necessitate a complete rethinking of how such a skill set is taught.)

The possible negative side is that one could fall into the same pattern one sometimes sees with professors who are using yellowed readings packages they designed a decade ago. Too much reuse of one’s own lectures from past semesters is probably just as stifling, and just as likely to limit how well one does one’s job as an instructor. I make a point of selecting slightly different readings for a course each time I teach it, just to keep things fresh for me, as well as to allow me to add texts that students might respond to better, or remove texts that weren’t right — too hard, unexpectedly not enjoyed by the students, whatever — for the last class.

Still, having those old MP3s (or Audacity project files, if you can handle the storage, to allow some editing later on) doesn’t mean you have to use them. One could update particular lectures while reusing ones not needing updating. And of course, it’s the discussions in class — of which one can lead more — that make and keep things really fresh.

Anyway, for anyone who is  teaching content-based courses, I’d say this approach seems worth a shot, at least for the right level of students. (It might not be useful for a freshman non-English-majors conversational English course; but it definitely could for a course like, say, Public Speaking, or Understanding English and American Popular Cultures or, in the case of the course I’ll be teaching next semester, Literature in Multicultural Society (aka as my Canadian Lit course).

3 thoughts on “Save the Classroom Time for Discussions (Why to Lecture by MP3)

  1. On the other hand, it might be perfect for freshman non-English-majors conversational English courses. Having a set of seven of the same classes to repeat the same material, I would be far happier to give examples of the material in the book but pace the conversations, for example, at a speed more useful for my students (which tends to be MUCH slower than the books’ recordings) and then give local or topical examples of sentences being practised, with appropriate emphasis, and examples of British English vs Nth Am. English. Then, class time would be more effectively used for students to write their own example conversations, me to check them, and then for them to learn them, or perhaps more effectively, for ‘free-range’ practise with all students wandering the room practising with each other at random for a significant amount of time.

    1. Julian,

      Interesting thought. If you experiment with it, I’d love to know how it works out. That’s not the sort of class I usually teach, though. I’m likelier to use it to set up in-class discussions.


      Well, maybe I should hold off until I’m sure I’ll be teaching these classes again before I sink too much energy into it. I have some publications to achieve, so I guess my time needs to go into that first…

  2. I’m teaching an online course for elementary school teachers. I first taught it last semester, and the first time through was a killer!!! Because the lectures had to be a certain length, and were filmed, I had to script the lectures. I spent about 10 hours a week on that course alone last semester.

    But, this semester it has been soooo much easier. The lectures are already recorded, so it’s just the online interaction left to do. I think I will consider revisiting a lecture or two next semester, though, just to have something fresh, and to keep me thinking about the topics (all to do with teaching English – classroom management, choosing textbooks, how to teach the various skills, etc.)

    I’m not sure if an MP3 lecture would work with my students. I think yours are a lot more motivated than mine. I know that 80% of them wouldn’t listen, and would just ask the other 20% what I said.

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