Random Thoughts

The Evolution of the Lecture

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In my last blog post a couple days ago I talked about lectures not being a bad thing. 

Both Will and I make livings now lecturing to people. Lectures aren’t bad when used properly to motivate, inspire, or push thinking. So the flipped approach is not about replacing the lecture.

That quote has been tweeted a bit and it has me thinking about the changes we have seen in lectures and how they do not need to be should not be the sit and get sessions we remember from our time in school.

by Tulane Public Relations

In fact I think lectures are making a come back in some sense. We all love TED Talks which are nothing more than a lecture. But a lecture with something we all really enjoy….a time limit. 18 minutes is all you get for a TED Talk and because of that time limit it’s an intense 18 minutes. I know when I was giving my TEDx Talk I was watching the clock to make sure I was on time and within the limits as they will cut you off. 

Lectures aren’t the problem….Bad lectures are.

There is no reason a lecture today should not be interactive and engage the audience in the ideas being talked about. Or fast and engaging to the point where people don’t want to be off task. This is what TED does so well.

Will Richardson (I’ll keep picking on him for now) at his ISTE presentation lectured…and it was a great lecture. But what made it even better was that he used Today’s Meet a free chat room for those in the audience to share their ideas. Will did a great job of asking people to get involved, to give him feedback, and then he used the audiences input to change and adapt his talk. Taking time to check the stream, to engage with his audience. That is what a good lecture today should be. 

There is absolutely no reason why this can’t be done in a classroom. There are so many ways to engage your audience when giving a lecture that it should be just what we expect from a lecture in today’s digitally connected world. 

We also know more about the brain then ever before and know the brain needs processing time, or think time about every 10 minutes. Which is why whenever I’m giving a talk, about every 10 minutes I give the audience a 3 minute talk and process time. This also allows me to look at notes, chat rooms, tweets, or whatever system I have set up and reflect on how the lecture is going, see where I need to make changes and adapt to the audience. Again TED Talks are so good because they are no longer than 18 minutes and most are much shorter than that. Giving us that perfect chunk of knowledge that we can handle, process, and make meaning of.

I still find it fascinating how many times when giving a talk that this idea of back channeling is a new concept to so many. As if “sit and get” is still what is expected. It shouldn’t be!

Simple ways to back channel in the classroom:

  • Collaborative Notes: The simplest and probably most rewarding for students is to allow collaborative note taking by the class. Once you introduce students to this, whether in a lecture, in reading text, or just studying for a test it changes the note taking process forever…and I would argue for the better. Google Docs works perfect for this!
  • Chatroom: There are so many free ones out there or you can use a simple Google Doc and have students chat in the doc if you have that available. So many possibilities with a chatroom I don’t know why this isn’t more common.
  • Class Twitter Hashtag: I personally have never used this in a classroom but I know of others that have and as long as every student has a Twitter account (and they should) then this adds power not only during class but anytime students are connected they could be sharing, learning, engaging in the class.
  • Class Facebook Page: If you set up a class Facebook page students can chat, take notes, discuss, and stay connected long after the period or school is over. In fact just today on one of the class Facebook pages that I helped a teacher set up at ISB a graduated Senior posted he passed the IB exam and gave a shout out to the teacher thanking him for his teaching and helping him the past two years to find his voice and have a new respect for literature. Pretty cool if you ask me. 

If you find yourself in a situation where you are giving a lecture make it interactive….and no, a 100 slide powerpoint presentation is not interactive no matter how many times the letters fly in from the left, top and right. 

Lectures aren’t bad…..bad lectures are bad. Take time to make your lectures interactive, to put the focus on those listening and give them the power to interact with the content and with each other and you change the dynamics in a classroom really quickly. You put the focus on the learner not the content and that is never a bad thing.

I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


  1. paul martin Reply

    Traditional TED lectures are not interactive (and some might say are seldom academic-fare), and I am not sure that a classroom full of students with iphones doing facebook will impress the Inspector: “engagement was poor as the class eyeballs were focused elsewhere”. I can appreciate how John Cleese got upset when he saw people not paying him attention as they had their faces in their ipads.

    • Jeff Utecht Reply

      I agree that TED Talks are not interactive. But if you’re not going to make your talk interactive then you need to keep it TED Talk short. So I think the lecture of today needs to be one of two things. Either short and inspiring or interactive. Long, class time lectures, that are not interactive are what I think the term “boring lecture” comes from. I think with the web we’re in a new place and the more I reflect on this with the comments here I’m coming to believe that lectures use to be a way we gave content and that’s no longer the case. Lectures should be used to inspire, tell stories, push thinking with ideas. If we’re using a lecture to deliver content…that’s what needs to change.

    • Jeff Utecht Reply

      Agree…and I’m coming to understand that the poor lecture today is a deliver of content rather than a pushing of thinking. If you want to deliver content there are other ways to make that happen than standing in front of students rambling on. Lectures should be used to inspire thinking, push ideas and tell stories. Then have students go find the content that goes with that lecture. I think that’s the switch I’m starting to make in my head.

  2. I really enjoyed your post. In general, the classroom should be more interactive, allowing for you as the lecturer to see where people’s interests are and if they are not understanding what is being discussed. For me, lectures have been same in many of my classes, where you just sit and listen, follow a powerpoint session, and maybe ask a question, but in general as the student you tend to zone out.

    I’m not sure if Twitter or chatroom would be best route to take, as it would seem there is the potential for people to spend more time chatting or tweeting versus paying attention to the lecture, though I do like the idea of a class Facebook page. I feel that the Facebook page may be more beneficial in engaging people outside of class.

    • Jeff Utecht Reply

      If you’re zoned out…does it really matter if it’s twitter a chatroom or doodling on your notebook? I think the issue is using lectures to deliver content. I think also if you are using a chatroom with a bad lecture at least the participants have a chance to learn, talk, and figure things out despite the lecture. That might not be a bad thing.

      A bad lecture is a bad lecture and you can’t make people pay attention. As I say in my keynotes….if you’re going to be off task at least be thinking and here are some links, a chatroom, and twitter to go be off task with. If I can’t hold your attention that’s my problem as a teacher not your problem as a learner.

      • Well said Jeff, I’ve seen a lot of people complaining that introducing/allowing interactive technology such as twitter / mobile texting in class could potentially inhibit learning and engagement by bringing in more distractions. And my answer is exactly as you put it, if the student is getting easily distracted the problem is more to do with the teacher than the student.

  3. Attention cannot be demanded, it has to be earned. In the case of the TED Talks, people listen because the TED conference has earned a reputation for excellent ideas. Just like Chick-fil-A has a cut-off (closed on Sunday), TED has a cutoff and both have benefitted (as have we) from it. Students give their attention to teachers when they’ve earned it, whether its by engaging students in great content, grabbing their focus with interesting stories or examples, or proving that that the content is important in the lives of students.

    Lectures have been around, and will stay. But technology and attention spans change. Lectures have to change with them! 🙂

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  9. Hey Jeff,

    I use your group note taking skills for all sorts of activities. I think the visual image gathering (especially the abstract ones) are really important for making our learning last.

    Processing time is so important too, I think this is something that is often overlooked in lectures (and we get frustrated when people take that time when it isn’t given). Allowing time for conversations, etc. help us process the information from the lectures.

    And I know I love TED talks, but I still tune out and control, I think TED talks are great because I can control them, I’m not sure how I would feel if I were there.

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