Ferdinand von Prondzynsky (President of Dublin City University) recently posted an interesting article about a new phenomenon in education called the “microlecture”. Essentially a microlecture is a 60 second blast of information, delivered as a video or audio podcast. Now while Ferdinand, a man I have great respect for, was careful not to be instantly dismissive of what could be argued to be a daft new fad thought up by touchy feely educationalists eager to squander, I mean capture, more research funding he did point out that such an approach essentially eliminates some of the most important aspects of education: analysis, discussion and criticality. In this sense there is definitely a point to be made – most educational traditions eschew the rote learning approach in favour of students who can analyse, assess and create knowledge rather than mindlessly accept everything that is fed to them.
To put this in perspective I should probably explain a little bit about how microlectures work. Developed by David Penrose, the self-styled “One Minute Professor” microlectures involve stripping all of the unnecessary “padding” from a typical lecture and reducing it to a burst of keywords and phrases which are topped and tailed by roughly 30 seconds of introduction and conclusion. Lasting between 60 seconds to 3 minutes Penrose argues in an interview published on Chronicle.com that the format is a “framework for knowledge excavation” where “We’re going to show you where to dig, we’re going to tell you what you need to be looking for, and we’re going to oversee that process.” To some this might sound like a polite way of saying that lecturers get to put their feet up while the students do all the work (although others might ask whether this is a bad thing at all).
But anyway, let’s go back and address that niggling feeling which most of us probably have that microlecturing amounts to a dumbing down of education (a) because of the fact that a gimmicky 60 seconds is nowhere near long enough to impart all of the essential information and (b) there is no time or place for discussion, analysis or criticality. There probably is some mileage in the idea that the microlecture is not for everyone and most certainly not for every subject. At first glance it does seem more suited to technical or practical subjects than to certain theoretical subjects where analysis is essential.
Having said that, it is a possibility that it’s not the format or indeed its incompatibility with certain subjects that’s the problem. It could just be the course design and the sequencing of topics and classes within a course. In other words it might all boil down to the teachers themselves. I can see a clear use for microlectures as a primer for a particular topic. Imagine a microlecture outlining the key concepts in an area, say legal translation or usability issues in website design. Students are blasted with a bite-size overview of the topic and then told to build on it in preparation for a conventional lecture, tutorial or workshop in a week or two. This would, I imagine, usher students into a learning style where they create their own knowledge, they direct their own learning… already buzzwords like constructivism, inquiry-based learning, transferable skills and information literacy are circling overhead like flies. And this, I think, might be the hidden value of microlectures. It’s not what they contain, it’s how they can be used. As a primer or starting point, the microlecture can represent a scaffold (constructivist slang for “a hook to hang your coat on”) upon which students can build knowledge as they explore and learn about a subject. I’m not sure whether it will work – I think there are various pedagogical, organisational and cultural issues to be tackled – and only time will tell whether this is a genuine advance in learning or just another woolly attempt to pander to what some would call the Facebook generation with their ever-decreasing attention spans.For more information about the microlecture format, take a look at the following: