Why the Fuss Over Lectures?

The last few years have seen a burst of new educational platforms. Khan Academy, Coursera and edX, were just a few. At the core of all of these platforms is the same thing: video lectures.

This doesn’t surprise me. When I listed the courses I followed during my experiment to learn MIT’s computer science program over one year, the number one complaint from potential followers was that some of them didn’t have lecture videos.

But to me, this objection was silly. After having done dozens of courses online, I can say video is hardly the most important resource to have. In fact, many courses with written explanations were actually better than the ones with video.

So why all the fuss over lecture videos?

Why Video is Overrated (Even if You Think You Need It)

I like watching lecture videos, and I’d watch them whenever they were available. Videos are nice, and watching a video is certainly less strenuous than reading a textbook.

But after having finished the classes, I came to an unfortunate conclusion—the videos don’t matter too much. Having a video explanation of a concept is nice, but it’s rarely superior to the same explanation in text. Text even has the advantages of searchability and nonlinearity, features missing in video.

What mattered was having practice problems and projects. Under time constraints, speeding up lecture watching to spend more time on practice or insight-building tactics was almost always a good tradeoff. Knowing I’d need to pass the exam later, I’d always pick a course without lectures than one without practice problems.

MIT has recognized this. Although Professor Walter Lewin gave possibly the best introductory physics lectures since Feynman, I’ve been told the lecture-heavy model for classical mechanics is starting to be replaced with one that emphasizes group problem solving. It turns out that students just don’t learn very well from watching lectures.

If this is the case, then why make videos the priority? Why not demand higher quality problem sets with better-explained solutions. These are almost certainly more useful for the subjects that represent the majority of online courses.

Videos are What Students Want (Not What They Need)

I feel the fuss over video has two causes:

  1. Students associate university subjects with lectures, and don’t know how to learn without them.
  2. Watching videos is fun, doing practice problems is hard.

The first to me seems like more of a consequence of the relative novelty that is online education. Because it is so new, educators and students expect it to resemble traditional universities. Even if that resemblance is wasteful.

The second seems like a bigger issue. Students want videos because videos make them feel like they’re learning important new skills and concepts, even when it’s far less useful than solving problems or doing projects.

For the casual learner, maybe this isn’t a bad tradeoff. After all, watching a set of lectures is better than nothing, which may be the alternative if doing problem sets is simply too irritating. But if this is the case, it puts a really low potential value on the educational attainment, if it’s not worth using the tools even in a contrived setting.

Learning Faster Without Lectures

Unfortunately I don’t think this trend is going to go away. Casual learners (which represent the vast majority of MOOC participants) want easy-to-watch videos instead of problems and projects. Course platforms will cater to this, and the emphasis will continue.

However, I think this gives a real advantage to the dedicated learner. I wouldn’t have been able to do two-thirds of the MIT Challenge if I had only taken courses which had lecture videos. But I could pick from the far larger quantity of classes which lacked video, but had assignments and solutions.

This doesn’t mean video is a waste. When I had a class with lectures, I’d watch them (although usually at 1.5x the speed), but a class without video wouldn’t be any more difficult as long as I had access to a textbook or comprehensive course notes.

Why You Can Learn Without Lectures Too

I can just imagine now all the people reading this who feel they are the exception. Maybe I’m an oddity who can learn well without lectures, but you are different and need someone to verbally talk you through it.

I had the same worry the first time I did a class without lectures. I assumed it would be much more difficult, after all, wasn’t the lecture where all the learning was going on?

My fears turned out to be completely unfounded. My first non-video class was actually much easier to understand and better taught than many with comprehensive video lectures. Later I would do a class without videos or text, and it also turned out to be much easier than I had expected, because the projects were so robustly explained and supported.

The Danger of Watching Videos as “Learning”

One reason I’m pessimistic about video is that it gives a false sense of accomplishment. I learned early on in the challenge not to trust my intuition of how well I understood a course after only watching the lectures. It wasn’t until I’d been beaten down by problem sets that I realized all the gaps in my understanding.

This is why I’m skeptical of the students who claim they “learn” better by video. Because it’s easy to get the feeling of learning something by passively watching an explanation, even if it doesn’t translate into a useful skill.

If you’re serious about learning a subject, by all means watch some videos, but don’t make it your priority. Focus on getting to practice as soon as possible, since that’s where you’ll discover and fill the gaps that create a deep understanding.


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