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Information Scarcity Today

December 29, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

There is no doubt that formal education today is based on an information scarcity model. The methods used are firmly rooted in the past with lectures in higher education still accounting for over 90% of all formal learning events. Referring to an earlier post, I quote:

As Graham Gibbs recently wrote in the Times Higher:

More than 700 studies (referring to Gibbs work) have confirmed that lectures are less effective than a wide range of methods for achieving almost every educational goal you can think of. Even for the straightforward objective of transmitting factual information, they are no better than a host of alternatives, including private reading. Moreover, lectures inspire students less than other methods, and lead to less study afterwards.

For some educational goals, no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective than lecturing, including, in some cases, no teaching at all. Studies of the quality of student attention, the comprehensiveness of student notes and the level of intellectual engagement during lectures all point to the inescapable conclusion that they are not a rational choice of teaching method in most circumstances.

A review by Hughes and Mighty written in the more recent past (2010) reinforced Bligh’s damning indictment of lecturing as learning events written over 40 years ago. The recent article in The Atlantic by Corrigan looks at the debate about lecturing and says about those defending and supporting lecturing:

In some ways these apologia accentuate the dividing line in the lecturing debate. They praise various aspects of lecturing, while criticizing alternative methods. These rhetorical moves reinforce the idea of a two-sided debate, lecturing vs. not lecturing. Their skirting of the research on the subject puts them on the less convincing side, in my view.

This is appalling – For some educational goals, no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective than lecturing, including, in some cases, no teaching at all. 

And yet, lecturing still accounts for over 90% of all learning events in higher education and I can only speculate about primary or secondary education, but would be surprised if it was much less.


That we live in an age of unprecedented and ubiquitous information abundance (at least in the developed world) is beyond argument. Since this is the case, why do we cling to learning models that were developed a thousand years ago?

MOOCs – the next big thing from about 2001 to 2013 – have been offered, and taken up, by hundreds of thousands of students as an alternative to formal education. Like most (again, over 90%) of the online provision available, educators have taken the worst we have to offer (no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective than lecturing) and dished it out in larger and larger portions. There have been a few shining examples that have taken advantage of an information abundance model (cMOOCS), but they are few and far between.


There are a number of stakeholders involved, and I will consider each one of them, in turn, over the next few weeks. I may miss some, but the ones I will consider will be: the institutions (and administrators), the teachers, the students, parents, and employers. As a spoiler, I will say right now that the biggest factor is expectation.

Stay Tuned

How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?

  1. December 31, 2016 at 9:46 pm

    Thanks for this. I’ve found your writing on lectures very useful.
    Question: Have you come across any research that details what percentage of higher education (in one or more Western nations) is based on the lecture format? And if this research is based on self-reporting (“What percentage of your teaching is done in the lecture format?”), which I expect to be the case, how likely is it that lecturing is under-reported – given that instructors are aware of the stigma against lecturing?

  2. January 4, 2017 at 6:24 pm

    Good to hear from you, Keith.

    The 90% figure comes from another blog written some time ago, so, based on your comment, I did some digging. There are several different figures, and as you have suggested, they are different based on how they are collected. The figures that have some credibility range from 75% (2012) to 89% (1988). The 2012 figure listed online instruction (videocasts and multiple choice questions) as making up a large part of the remaining 25%. Since most videocasts consist of recorded lectures, even though the lecturer might be sitting at their desks rather than standing in from of a crowd of students.

    I agree with Bligh (2000), Bok (2006), and Sykes (2016) who, although not posting any figures, think that lecturing as a form of instruction, has increased in the last 20 years as a result of the increase in pressure to research. The advent of video lectures has made that even easier as a professor can reuse previously recorded material without any time commitment whatsoever. Although I was using the “over 90%” figure based on hearsay (something I usually studiously avoid :-)), I will use it with some confidence in the future (if I count videocasts as a form of lecturing).

    Thanks for the push.


  1. December 30, 2016 at 6:13 pm

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