The Big Questions: Video Lectures

The next question in the series of “big issues” that Coursera has posed is:

What makes a video lecture effective?

Everybody and her brother has advice about how to make lecturing more effective (particularly in STEM fields, which makes sense given that many of these classes already tend to be large). From being clear and well organized, to thinking carefully about pacing, to showing genuine care towards students and the material — there’s a well-worn groove in discussions about this topic.


Similarly, there’s a good deal of discussion out there about how to make video lectures more effective, most of them involving issues of length, integrating visual aids and other interactive tools within the lecture, and having lectures embedded within the online learning environment in ways that support other features of the course.


Most of this advice is geared to making videos that transmit information effectively in a moderately student-centered way, which is fine for a good course. But my premise in all these discussions is to think about what makes a course great, not simple good.

A great lecture transcends a good one because it doesn’t just focus on delivering information effectively, but engaged students to think and reflect in ways that are transformative. Actually, Robert Talbert writes about this really well on his Chronicle of Higher Education blog “Casting Out Nines.” Indeed, Talbert points out that  lectures are actually pretty bad ways of delivering information to people. Instead, they should only really be used to:

  • Model thought processes (that is, show students how an expert works through problems and processes information);
  • Share cognitive structures (sharing with students certain strategies for thinking about issues, or techniques for doing things they simply wouldn’t come up with on their own);
  • Give context (provide some of the big picture or background on issues that students might not be aware of);
  • Tell stories (which again, can provide powerful ways of conceptualizing information and remembering the purpose of doing something).

This really strikes a chord with me on several levels, not the least because I have given lots of lectures in the past (some good, some really bad, and a couple of great ones). Indeed, if you look at Andrew Ng’s lectures for CS299 (the course he taught at Stanford which is often cited as part of the inspiration behind Coursera), they’re pretty good. A couple of them are great. What makes them interesting to watch is partly what Talbert describes: seeing Ng’s thought process as he works through and explains various aspects of machine learning. It’s also the context he provides. It’s what textbooks and print often can’t do — at least, not without seeming self-indulgent.

There’s a lot here that I want to explore further, but I’ll end by just saying that the thing that make TED talks so amazing and effective is that in 18 minutes, they reveal a new way of thinking at an issue or problem, often through one simple story or focused example. That is, they are conceptually driven — and the information provided really only works to reveal the concept, the moment of, “Wow.”

There’s an interesting interview with Chris Anderson, the curator at TED, on the “art” of a good TED talk, and one of the things he points out is that the best TED talks feel like a “thrilling journey.” They focus on the audience, on revealing an insight or vision of the world in ways that we might never notice ourselves. But they aren’t ego-driven. On contrary, one of the TED commandments is: “thou shall not stroke thy ego.” So there’s a kind of vulnerability and “nakedness” that good TED speakers project that audiences really respond to. It’s about humans connecting to humans through technology.

This is definitely worth thinking about more.

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