Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Economics of Big Lectures

by Andrew Gillen

Brad DeLong asks a very good question Why Are We Here? (In a Big Lecture, That Is)

He notes that the origins of big lectures were the enormous cost of books pre-Gutenberg, estimating that students would have needed the equivalent of $1.6 million (yes million, and I thought a couple hundred bucks a year was bad!) to buy all the books for a college education. Thus, they had one book which was read to a big audience.

But after the printing press, and the resulting "cheap" books, the rationale for big lectures is gone... DeLong:

Yet the Lecture Remains: Why? Four Possible Reasons:

* Budget stringency: lectures are cheap for the university relative to seminars, and even if they are markedly less effective they do soak up students' time
* Alternative information channel: The ears are wired to the brain differently than the eyes, and there is value in not only reading something but also hearing something in producing the synaptic changes that we want to see happen in college.
* A self-discipline device: if people have to show up at a certain place at a certain time to accomplish a task or be disciplined, they are more likely to do so. Lecture is a way of solving our self-command and self-control problems.
o But why not then just have a study hall? Everyone reads the book, and the monitor circulates and answers quetions?
* A sociological event: East African Plains Apes like to do things in groups that involve language--that is just who we are--and the lecture is just another example of this

All four of these surely play some role. But I have no idea of the relative balance between them--and neither, it seems, does anybody else I can find...

Of the four he lists, I think the first has the most weight, but I might also add that as a teacher, lectures may be easier then seminars, at least in the early stages of a discipline - upper level and grad seminars perhaps not so much.

What other education practices that have long been obsolete (or changed rationales) are there? The 9-month school year comes immediately to mind, but what else?

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