An article in the 15-February online edition of the Washington Post traces the movement away from large-lecture classes in Washington-area and Maryland universities. The article, entitled “Colleges looking beyond the lecture” and written by Daniel de Vise, begins with the statement, “The lecture hall is under attack.” STEM programs (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are especially interested in “retooling” the lecture” since the format is blamed, at least partially, for the attrition rates in these difficult programs: “About one-third of students enter college aspiring to STEM majors. Of that group, less than half complete a degree in a STEM field. Some migrate to the humanities. Others drop out.”
The article describes ways of diminishing the passive experience of the lecture in favor of active learning. Teachers break up large audiences into smaller groups as well as employ interactive smart boards, ask-your-neighbor discussions, impromptu teacher-student questions, and instant surveys. An alternative to retooling the lecture format is to keep the traditional lecture, but keep it out of the classroom. But, one might ask, why not scratch the lecture completely? Lectures are still useful…and popular. At the same time that active learning is on the rise, so too is the proliferation and popularity of online lectures from world-class faculty at [e.g.] Harvard, Yale, and MIT. De Vise writes, “General education lecture courses vary little from one university to the next. 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.” Indeed, the lecture has become “a commodity that can be bought or shared.”
If there is utility in the lecture, perhaps it exists more as a preparation for the in-class experience. De Vise offers Jane Greco, a chemistry instructor at Johns Hopkins, as an example. Greco “records her lectures and posts them online as homework, a popular use for the derided tool. Greco uses her time in the lecture hall as a sort of ‘office hours for everybody,’ an interactive discussion of the lab experiment students completed in the previous session. One goal, she said, is ‘to separate out what you’re getting in our classroom that you can’t get online.’”
Perhaps there is some applicability to the ILE experience, where active learning/adult learning is the official modus operandi. One can imagine a classroom at one end of the spectrum in which the bulk of the lesson is spent clicking through dozens upon dozens of bulletized images on a screen. One can imagine a second classroom at the opposite end of the spectrum in which the prepackaged lecture, instructor memory aides learning aides have been reduced to, say, five slides while maximum use is made of the classroom’s white boards, small-group discussions, and structured debates. The latter classroom is obviously preferable from the perspective of both the active-learning and adult-learning models.
But a third option (among others, I’m sure) exists. MG Edward Cardon who once articulated this idea, albeit to little effect. Put simply, follow Jane Greco’s example above. Perhaps instructors might consider giving their adult learners the memory learning aides as homework as opposed to making the slides the crux of the classroom experience. Instructors and adult learners could—with the basic preliminaries of, say, doctrine out of the way—be able to discuss with some depth how the fundamental or doctrinal substance in last night’s PowerPoint presentation plays out in real-world problem situations as documented by scholars, policymakers, and military professionals writing in the pages of, say, Joint Forces Quarterly, Military Review, Parameters, Prism, or even strictly scholarly publications such as the Journal of Conflict Resolution and the American Political Science Review.
Early in the course, and particularly during the C100 and (partly) C200 lessons, this third way is perfectly suitable since—really—very little PowerPoint is necessary to have superb learning occur with the associated topics. Later in the course, when students are struggling with, say, the integration of design, critical-factor analysis, and the Joint Operations Planning Process, a superb lecture given as homework would—almost without a doubt—increase the chances of the material sticking since instructors could use the course time not to review the doctrinal material for the first time, but to observe and coach the officers as they apply the planning skills in the classroom…at the whiteboard…in groups…arguing the operational environment. If the pedagogical intent is to have the material and skills stick in the cranium (as opposed to say, achieving, a log-normal grade distribution), this third way might be worth looking into. Another benefit, strictly for the students, might include a more efficient use of time. A PowerPoint pack or lecture given as homework would reduce students’ preparation time at the margins and–in the aggregate–increase the time for reflection, inspire further study along a certain topic, increase intellectual endurance over the ten-month course, and–yes–increase the time for rest and personal/family pursuits, especially during the early, tornadic portion of the course.
Celestino Perez, Jr., Ph.D.
Lieutenant Colonel, Strategist
ILE Scholars Program–Local Dynamics of War