Opinion: Lectures are impractical to conduct via Zoom

The video-call platform facilitates discussions and small classes, but holds back students enrolled in lecture courses.


Photo illustration by Jenna Galligan

Kalen McCain , Opinions Columnist

In Iowa and across the nation, Zoom has become a widely used educational tool seemingly overnight. The video-calling service’s quick integration with university networks has made it pivotal to remote education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Technical difficulties and so-called “Zoom-bombing” aside, the service has worked as expected. The platform’s ease of handling and displaying large group calls has wonderfully facilitated classroom-style engagement in discussion sections, lab demonstrations, and workshops while participants bunker down across the country.

Indeed, the quick transition to virtual classes has been a testament to the adaptability of Iowa’s students and staff. For all its upsides, however, Zoom has one glaring flaw when it comes to college classes: lectures.

The decision by some professors to livestream lectures and uphold attendance requirements while working from home represents a refusal to adapt amid the need for acclimation.

Even without working from home, lecture formats have a number of downsides. Low student engagement means lectures don’t facilitate critical thinking and barely communicate essential ideas to students.

A study from San Diego State University  indicates large classes that lectures were designed for are, themselves, suboptimal, reducing student-teacher interaction and casting a wide net that’s inherently too slow to challenge some students but too fast for others to keep up.

This is not to say we should abandon lectures as a practice. Conducted in person, the disadvantages of large class size and a disengaging format are offset by the mental and social benefits of proximity to peers and the setting of a minimally distracting learning environment.

Online lectures, however, have none of these advantages. They occur with limited or no interaction between students who can’t easily interact one-on-one during group calls. Students observe not from workspaces, but from living spaces in homes more distraction-prone than lecture halls.

Without the engagement afforded by other class formats, live streamed lectures are inefficient educational tools because distractions are more likely when they’re so much closer, more interactive, and more present than course content.

On another note, many students now learning remotely have gone home to different time zones and even different continents. A 9 a.m. lecture in Iowa happens at 7 a.m. in California, 4 a.m. in Honolulu, and 10 p.m. in Beijing.

Traditionalists stress that live lectures allow students to keep attendance grades, but this ignores that even with forgiving multi-hour windows, attendance in a remote environment is an asinine penalty for living abroad.

Live lectures aren’t justified by real-time questions from students, either. Professors can answer questions from lecture just as easily during virtual office hours, on ICON announcements, and from student emails, none of which require the participants to be awake at the same time, and none of which slow down content with repetitive or niche questions.

The solution is simple: for lecture format classes, drop attendance requirements. Professors can livestream their lessons if they like or simply post pre-recorded ones but shouldn’t penalize students for watching the recorded version instead, whether they do so because of time zones, or just because they have a different schedule when they’re not on campus.

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