WASHINGTON: Science, mathematics and engineering departments at many United States universities are abandoning or retooling the traditional lecture as a style of teaching, worried that it is driving students away.
The faculty at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has dedicated this academic year to finding alternatives to the lecture in those subjects.
US higher education leaders increasingly blame the format for high attrition in science and maths classes. They say the lecture is a turn-off and is higher education at its most passive, leading to frustration and bad grades in highly challenging disciplines.
HARD TO ELIMINATE
'If we want to get that whole human being out at the other end, we have to offer them a variety of experiences. And the lecture is part of it... I don't think we will ever get away from it completely.'
Biologist Hartmut Doebel from George Washington University
'Just because teachers say something at the front of the room doesn't mean that students learn,' said chemistry professor Diane Bunce from Catholic University of America in Washington.
One goal of the reform movement is to break up vast classrooms. But just as important, experts say, is to rethink the way large classes are taught: to improve, if not replace, the lecture model.
Universities are learning to make courses more active by seeding them with questions, ask-your- neighbour discussions and instant surveys.
The lecture backlash signals an evolving vision of college as participatory exercise in the US. Gone are the days when the professor could recite a textbook in class. The watchword of today is 'active learning'.
Students are doing experiments, solving problems and answering questions - or at least registering an opinion on an interactive 'smartboard' with an electronic clicker. The anti-lecture movement is fuelled, too, by the proliferation of online lectures, which threaten the monopoly on learning long held by brick-and-mortar campuses.
To stage a lecture today, it is no longer necessary for either the professor or the student to enter a classroom. Instead, they can connect via YouTube or iTunes.
Students know they can log on to their laptops and watch the very same lecture - or a better one by a celebrity professor at a rival university.
The spread of online courses has raised the value of top academics at Harvard, Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who now lecture to the world. But this transformation has also reduced the lecture to a commodity that can be bought or shared.
University leaders view the format with rising unease.
'It's not as satisfying an experience as we would like the students to have,' said vice-provost for research Scott Zeger at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.
'If we want to get that whole human being out at the other end, we have to offer them a variety of experiences. And the lecture is part of it,' said biologist Hartmut Doebel from George Washington University. 'I don't think we will ever get away from it completely.'
Not all the ideas are new. At the University of Maryland College Park, engineering professors eliminated introductory lecture courses in 1991.
'What generally used to happen, almost across the country, was that the very first experience a student would have with engineering was a very large lecture hall,' said engineering instructor Kevin Calabro from College Park.