What’s so great about live lectures anyway?

By Gordon Rugg

So what’s so great about live lectures anyway, and why do people get so worked up about whether to put lectures online?

Live lectures have some significant advantages over other media; however, these advantages can be difficult to put into words unless you’ve encountered the relevant bodies of research and practice. This can be very frustrating if your employer wants to put everything online for whatever reason, and if they think that anyone who disagrees is simply a lazy Luddite unwilling and unable to change with the times.

There are very real reasons for including face to face lectures, tutorials etc in education and training. However, some important reasons aren’t as widely known as they should be. In this article, I’ll look at these reasons, and then consider the implications for choice of delivery methods in education.

The first reason I’ll look at involves reading the audience’s reactions so you can modify the delivery in real time. Some lecturers take this for granted; others appear never to have thought of it.

The second involves hard information and soft information, and how these interact with issues such as front versions and back versions.

I’ll also look briefly at the knowledge pyramid, which consists of data, information and knowledge.

Finally, I’ll consider some historical context, before pulling together some recommendations for choice of delivery methods.

Reading the audience, and types of people

At their best, live lectures can be life-changing. At their worst, they use up a chunk of your life that you’ll never have again. The tricky bit is that what one student thinks is a life-changing event, another student may hate. So what’s going on there?

One major factor is that when you’re giving a live lecture, you can read the audience, and you can adapt the lecture in real time in response to the audience’s nonverbal feedback. For example, if they’re looking bored, you move swiftly on; if they’re looking puzzled, you slow down and go into more detail.

A related advantage of live lectures is that you can spin off onto a different topic that suddenly and unexpectedly turns out to need coverage. For example, you mention a technical term that you think the students already know, but they look blank, and you realised that you need to explain it. For some key concepts, this is not going to be a one-sentence explanation; instead, it will take several minutes. In a live lecture, you can do this.

There are other reasons, and I’ll return to them later, but for the moment I’ll focus on the two above.

It was a surprise to me when I realised that not all lecturers take this for granted. It was also a surprise when I realised that not all students like this approach. So what’s going on?

What I think is going on is as follows. Some people prefer to have information presented in a format that they’re expecting, with the minimum of departure from that format, and with the minimum of distraction. Others prefer to have information presented in a richer, less predictable format, with more memory cues via throwaway anecdotes, and with immediate clarification of points that they don’t understand.

Phrased this way, both viewpoints make sense. However, this means that some students will hate the same features of live lectures that other students love. We can show this in a table, similar to the one in another article about mismatches between expressive and instrumental behaviour, in the context of doctors interacting with patients.

The table below shows the mapping between the two viewpoints on lectures, and the type of student feedback which each combination is likely to produce.

This model has significant implications for how we handle student feedback. It implies that there are two populations of student, whose ideas about what constitutes a “good lecture” are mutually incompatible. This is why a lecture that gets brilliant overall feedback from one group of students can get dreadful overall feedback from another group of students. The feedback reflects the proportion of students who happen to match the style of the lecture, rather than reflecting the lecture in itself.

This has far-reaching implications for assessment of lecturers’ job performance, where there is often an implicit assumption that negative feedback from students reflects failings on the part of the lecturer that can and should be remedied. That, however, is another topic, for another article.

Types of knowledge: Front versus back, and hard versus soft

Returning to the theme of live lectures versus other methods of delivery, another major advantage of live lectures is that you can use them to tell students about things that they need to know, but that you have no intention of putting in writing with your name on it. These often involve the dirty underbelly of how things actually happen in the workplace. There’s an entire genre of instructive stories that begin: “Back in the day, when this was legal, a lot of employers…”

These concepts are well known and well codified in some disciplines, but not in others. The concepts of front versions and back versions were described in depth by Goffman in 1959, in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, and are taken for granted in sociology and related disciplines. The related concepts of hard information and soft information have likewise been in widespread use for decades in information systems research and practice, where they’re an important part of Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology (SSM). In many disciplines, however, these concepts are little known.

In brief, the front version is the version that a group shows to outsiders, and the back version is the version used by group members. Sometimes this involves dishonesty, but usually it involves agreed norms, and what are considered to be appropriate forms of behaviour. An example is airline pilots presenting a front version to passengers of being calm and in control, even if the back version involves worries about catastrophic engine failure.

Hard information and soft information relate closely to these concepts, but are not the same. Hard information is information stored on some long-term medium, such as written text on paper; soft information is ephemeral, such as a conversation in the corridor. Historically, this was a fairly crisp distinction, with significant implications. Some types of information handling, such as customer records, are better suited to treatment as hard information. Others, such as giving real-time updates to colleagues about fast-changing situations, are better suited to soft information. A key part of joining a discipline is learning about back versions and group norms. Similarly, learning when to use hard information and when to use soft information is an important part of learning how to do a job.

Historically, there was a fairly close mapping between front versions and hard information, and between back versions and soft information. There was an interesting liminal area where the decision might be made to treat something via hard information and front versions as a precaution, doing something “by the book” and “with a paper trail” if there was a perceived risk of future problems.

In the past, this meant that lecturers could present front versions via hard information, in forms such as lecture slides for students, and could present back versions via soft information such as lectures and tutorials.

This situation changed with the spread of technologies such as mobile phones, which could record a live lecture and transform it from soft information into hard information, with all the associated implications of lecturers’ words potentially coming back to cause them problems later.

In some fields, this is not a significant risk; if you’re telling students about the properties of plagioclase feldspar, you’re unlikely to provoke international controversy on Twitter. In other fields, this is a huge risk, if you’re trying to make students aware of sensitive issues in their chosen discipline where they could easily blunder into massively politicised issues without being aware of what they had done.

This can produce a significant chilling effect, where there’s a strong temptation for lecturers just to cover the uncontroversial topics and the front versions.

So, in summary for the points so far:

Live lectures allow the lecturer to modify the lecture in real time, in response to the audience’s reactions. Some lecturers and some students consider this a good thing; others consider it a bad thing.

Historically, live lectures provided a soft information route for lecturers to tell students about back versions that they needed to know about. This route is becoming more difficult because of recording devices that can turn any lecture into hard information, with an accompanying chilling effect.

Those are two issues about live lectures that are well recognised in some fields but not in others. There are other issues, some of which I’ve blogged about previously; in the next section, I’ll briefly discuss assorted other issues, then pull the results together into a summay of advantages and disadvantages of different delivery methods.

Types of knowledge: The knowledge pyramid

There’s a useful distinction in computing between data, information and knowledge. I’ve blogged about this topic here and here.

A simple definition of data in this context is just numbers, such as 814. These numbers are meaningless without a surrounding structure; for instance, 814 could be a house number, or the reading on a measuring device, or a historical date.

Information in this context is structured data; for example, the information that Charlemagne died in 814, where the number (data) is given meaning by the context of being a death date.

Knowledge is information about information. For example, Dark Age dates don’t map perfectly onto current calendar systems, because of the calendrical year in early European calendar systems not starting on January 1, and assorted other factors.

If we map this distinction onto the choice between live lectures and other forms of delivery, then it makes sense to use live lectures primarily for knowledge, where the concepts are more complex, and more liable to misunderstandings. Live lectures make it easier for the lecturer to judge whether the students have grasped an explanation that involves knowledge, or whether they need more explanation from a different angle. Data and information can be handled via hard information media, such as textbooks and online resources.

Types of communication: Synchronous versus asynchronous

This distinction is widely known, so I’ll keep this section brief.

Synchronous communication is real-time; asynchronous communication isn’t. A conversation by phone or video conference is synchronous; an email exchange, which is asynchronous, has a delay between one person’s communication going out, and another person’s receiving it.

Synchronous communication is faster than asynchronous. In a synchronous live lecture, if a student has a question, they can ask it immediately and get a response immediately. With an asynchronous recorded lecture stored online, if the student has a question, the speed of response can range from a few seconds (e.g. if the lecturer is available for online messaging at the time when the student views the lecture) to hours or days (e.g. if the student has to email the question to a lecturer during their office hours).

However, speed of response can come at a price; an immediate response may not be as accurate or well formulated as a thought-through, asynchronous response.

Historical factors

A complicating factor in discussion of live lectures is the historical and sociotechnical background. Historically, lectures provided a cheap way of disseminating knowledge, information and data, when books and related materials were expensive. This meant that by the time of cheap printed materials, the lecture was well established as the main default method of educational delivery.

This issue overlaps considerably with social factors, particularly power and status. The physical layout of the lecture theatre also imposes many sociotechnical constraints; we’ve blogged about this here.

Pulling it together: Which medium for which content?

Live lectures are good for real-time modification of the lecture in response to the audience’s reactions. Lectures are also good for covering soft information and back versions if they aren’t recorded. They’re variable as regards quality of responses to questions; they work well for questions with simple answers, but are more problematic for questions with complex answers.

In summary: Live lectures make it possible to deliver types of knowledge and feedback that aren’t feasible for recorded lectures. The converse is also true. These and other delivery mechanisms, such as project-based learning, should be viewed as complementary parts of a whole, and should be used systematically in combination with each other.

Notes and links

You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my book Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese.

You might also find our website useful.



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