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KHAN: Leave the lecture hall

Schools should embrace innovative educational techniques

In the distance, I can vaguely make out the shape of the professor. He’s explaining something about algorithms, but my attention is firmly focused on the girl sitting two rows in front of me. Her laptop is on the CNN homepage, the screen flashing shades of red and yellow tickers — far more attractive than the drab black and white powerpoint displayed on the overhead. I spend the rest of class shamelessly catching up on world news while the professor clicks away at his powerpoint.

In a University with almost 15,000 undergraduates, large lecture classes are unavoidable. Tough and unforgiving, they can teach a student how to be independent and self-driven, but most people groan at the very thought of going to large, impersonal lectures. Regardless, classroom lectures have always been seen as the standard, unshakable foundation of the modern research university, a mandatory toll one must pay on the road to higher education.

But exciting new trends in education are challenging the assumption that lectures must be delivered in the classroom. The flipped classroom approach is one such trend, a teaching method where lectures are watched individually before class and “homework” is done interactively during class. The basic idea is to push the more passive aspects of coursework, such as lecture watching, out of the classroom and to replace them with interactive homework-style activities. If educators were asked about such a dramatic method of teaching in the pre-Khan Academy era, most would have immediately dismissed the idea as foolish. Yet ever since the stunning success of Salman Khan’s revolutionary video lecture site, a larger shift in education is beginning to undermine how we think about the transfer of academic knowledge. With 10 million users as of February 2014, Khan Academy’s popularity is proof that entire lecture series on topics ranging from macroeconomics to organic chemistry can be condensed into small bite-sized videos. Simultaneously, professional education websites like Coursera offer hundreds of full length online courses through the video-lecture format pioneered by Khan. Udacity, edX, and Coursera are just the beginning of a new wave of massive open online courses (MOOCs) providers that are changing the very fundamentals of higher education. Already, over 5 million people are enrolled in Coursera’s online classrooms across 190 countries, giving some of the world's poorest peoples access to affordable, Stanford-level education.

With the availability of such vast bodies of knowledge open to the global public, many have begun to question the use of spending tens of thousands of dollars on tuition to attend prestigious universities when the route to higher education is seemingly a simple click away. Of course, the one place where MOOCs truly fail is with respect to interaction and dialogue. With hundreds of people participating in each individual MOOC, student-teacher and student-student interaction is nearly impossible, and individual feedback is out of the question. One cannot question the video lectures or raise arguments against the teaching material, and the absence of an active dialogue limits the dynamic, multifaceted exploration of topics.

But is there really a difference between attending a lifeless lecture and watching a video lecture? Many argue that since large lectures provide the same amount of practically nonexistent student-teacher interaction, the mega-lecture will be replaced with MOOCs in the near future. Here is where the idea of the flipped classroom comes in: by pushing classroom lectures into online video formats, students can passively learn factual lecture content on their own time but engage in useful activities during class. Designed by the professor and proctored by teaching assistants, such flipped classrooms would aim to give students immediate feedback on their work and would make class-time legitimately valuable. Student interaction with the professor and teaching assistants would increase, allowing for students to get a better grasp of the material being taught.

Earlier this week, Opinion columnist Sawan Patel argued we should make it mandatory for professors to post online lecture recordings for students enrolled in large classes. While Patel emphasizes this would allow for more self-directed learning, he also writes, “with all due respect to faculty members who want full lecture halls, it does not really matter if students physically show up to class.” While I don't believe lecture attendance is completely useless, I believe Patel is on to something. Many of the University's lecture halls have become places of passive learning, where professors simply dump powerpoint presentations on students and hope some of the information will stick. Such a process is a necessary evil, but it shouldn't be practised in the classroom when the same can be done online. Interaction and feedback should be the new golden values of the classroom. With the advent of MOOCs, many have predicted the doom of brick-and-mortar institutions — one Forbes writer even argues MOOCs “will kill off much of the research currently conducted at universities.” Only by flipping the lecture can we save the classroom.

Hasan Khan is an Opinion Columnist for the Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at