Online Learning Research Shows How Listening to a Lecture Isn’t Much Better Than Watching TV
March 7th, 2013

why it won't be hazardous to your brain if you miss in-person lectures in online learningThe advantages of interactive learning over passive lecture experiences have been well-documented through the years, but I would have thought academic lectures were at least a step up from Snooki’s antics on “Jersey Shore.” Not so much.

During a panel discussion in “Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education,” a two-day summit hosted by MIT and Harvard University on March 3 and 4, Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur showed research indicating that students sitting through a lecture have brain activity roughly equivalent to when they watch television. For real!

Mazur cited an MIT study in which subjects were fitted with wristbands that measured skin conductance as an index of the arousal associated with emotion, cognition, and attention. Over the course of a week, the wrist sensor of one MIT student recorded regular, strong spikes during periods of study, lab work, and homework, but the readout flatlined during two activities – attending class and watching TV.

For proponents of online education who have long been on the defensive against the insinuation that on-campus classes are the superior form of learning, this research probably feels like vindication. It might also feel like an opportune moment to thumb our collective noses at brick-and-mortar education – you’ve got nothing on us!

Or we could take the high road (not as fun, perhaps, but certainly more constructive) and use this opportunity for the two sides – online education vs. traditional – to come together. After all, the purpose of the aforementioned summit was to gather academic and institutional leaders to exchange ideas about the future of higher education at the intersection of on-campus and online learning.

The efficiency (or inefficiency) of straight-up lectures emerged as a key theme throughout the summit, with strong consensus that a blended model combining online lectures with teacher-led classroom experience is ideal. In the blended model, students might be asked to master basic material online at their own pace, freeing up the classroom to become a place where application of knowledge can be honed through lab experiments and discussions with the professor.

Last fall, for example, San Jose State University used the online lectures and interactive exercises of MIT’s introductory online Circuits and Electronics course (a massive open online course, or MOOC) as a springboard for its own on-campus course. San Jose students would watch the MIT lectures and do the exercises on their own time, and during actual class time, the first 15 minutes were spent on Q&A with the professor, with the rest of the time devoted to problem solving and in-depth discussion. Preliminary numbers indicate that those passing the class went from nearly 60 percent to about 90 percent.

In this way, online learning tools serve to make education much more interactive (and more stimulating for the brain than TV!). Several summit panelists pointed out that recording lectures, and thus turning them into a reference material that students can consult on their own time, frees professors to engage with students more directly.

So it turns out that if we use online tools to inform traditional courses, we’ll get the best of both education worlds – and keep our brain activity sky high in the process. Take that, Snooki.

Robyn Tellefsen

Robyn Tellefsen is an NYC-based freelance writer and editor who specializes in career education. In addition to writing for The CollegeBound Network and Employment Network's suite of sites, she provides proofreading and copyediting services for various publishing companies. She has a bachelor's degree in communications from Wheaton College (IL).

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