Current Issue

July 10, 2013

Vol. 113, No. 15

Web Exclusives

Essay - MOOCs and the forgotten lessons of teaching

By Richard Etlin ’69 *72 *78
Posted on July 1, 2013

The current discussion about MOOCs — massive, open, online courses — both in PAW (May 15) and in the general press reminds me of an analogous situation in the 1980s-’90s when the international field of educational psychology was focused largely on the nature and effectiveness of lectures. A significant American component was convinced that the primary purpose of lectures was to impart information. By demonstrating the degree to which factual information from lectures was forgotten either over the short or the long term, these researchers concluded that lecturing was not an effective pedagogical tool. In contrast, various Canadian and British researchers argued that the primary purpose of lectures was to present a model of how to integrate facts and ideas into a coherent whole. I concurred with the latter group while being surprised that the former had such a reductive approach to the issue. The current conversation about MOOCs risks making the same mistake by ignoring important aspects about lectures that even extend beyond what the Canadian and British researchers had stressed in that earlier era, especially with respect to the interactive aspects of lectures.

I became familiar with this body of literature when I was invited to contribute to an edited volume – Essays on Quality Learning: Teachers’ Reflections on Classroom Practice. IBM Total Quality Project­ (1998) – published at the University of Maryland, where I had been teaching at the School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation since 1981. To prepare for my contribution to that anthology, I decided to look into the literature about effective teaching. The lesson I took from this exercise was the degree to which the literature on teaching so easily can ignore the subtler, less quantifiable aspects of the process, which may very well constitute the essence of pedagogy. 

Over the course of nearly 40 years of university teaching, I came to appreciate the subtle but profound rapport between a professor and his or her students in the context of a lecture. This rapport is not unlike the relationship between an audience and musicians, dancers, actors, or athletes. In the case of education, the audience is watching — or rather, imbibing — through a process of mental and emotional osmosis, which we might call the cognitive learning matrix (CLM), how the lecturer is presenting a coherent synthesis of a subject, whereby the nature of the professor’s engagement with the material — an admixture of coolness and passion, along with clarity and emphasis — conveys a thought process that students understand on a range of psychic responses that extends from the rational to the subliminal. In the thriller The Detachment (Thomas & Mercer, 2011) by Barry Eisler, the hero, John Rain, muses about the psychic nature of his approach to judo with a self-awareness that presents a direct parallel with the way students respond to a good lecture: “My play had reached a level at which for the most part I was able to anticipate an opponent’s attack in the instant before he launched it, subtly adjust my position accordingly, and frustrate his plan without his knowing exactly why he’d been unable to execute.” Students sitting in a room with a professor who is delivering a lecture not only are listening to the words, they are watching a face and responding to the totality of the body language. In short, they are watching – with all of their senses, backed by their intuition, as well as with their rational mind – another mind in action. And the professor delivering the lecture is responding to the cues from the students as he or she adjusts the pace and tenor of the delivery.

When students pose questions during a lecture, that engagement deepens. I have never forgotten my first semester of teaching in the fall of 1975 when a former Princeton professor, Anthony Eardley, then dean at the College of Architecture of the University of Kentucky, offered me my first teaching position. During my lectures to a survey course of architectural history, an Iranian student whose English was quite fine would nevertheless repeatedly raise his hand to ask the meaning of a word. At first, I would simply give the answer. After a while, I instead asked the class to help out and was delighted to discover an entire range of responses, which I then used to refashion my lecture as I proceeded. I could tell that the class understood and appreciated this process of mental accommodation. 

Over the years, even without a question or a comment from a student, new ideas would pop into my head as I was lecturing and I would make adjustments, introducing asides, which the class recognized as constituent parts of the thought process. In effect, I am convinced that this thought process is the essential lesson of lecturing; the information conveyed, merely the dessert to a meal whose essence is to provide a lesson in active thinking. Like a dance between two people, it requires the live presence of partners in the same space and in close proximity. And a professor knows when this is working, especially when he or she watches the students sitting on the edge of their chairs with their faces rapt with attention and oblivious to the fact that the class has extended several minutes beyond the end of the scheduled period.

The live lecture also serves other pedagogical ends that are lost when it is recorded. I remember the pre-iPod days when students first began to carry around a Walkman with a music tape and attached earphones. Walking into the first 9 a.m. class of the semester, I would be confronted by 80 tape recorders pointed in my direction. One student would ask if they could each tape my lectures. I then would tell them the story about how, as an upperclassman, I once took a course from James Billington ’50, now the Librarian of Congress, on 19th-century European intellectual history. It was the most challenging as well as the most brilliant lecture course that I encountered at Princeton; I remember constantly having to triage the material, deciding what to write down and what to let pass as I took eight pages of notes during each lecture, with my wrist aching at the end of class. Yes, I told them, you may tape my lectures if you wish; but then you will never develop the skill to distinguish instantaneously between the “key ’cepts,” as we called them back in the ’60s, and the lesser material. Nearly all the students would put away their tape recorders as they engaged in the difficult pedagogical task of training their minds to think with a nimbleness much like the black-belt hero John Rain in Barry Eisler’s novel. I could go on and even write a book about the multiple aspects of the cognitive learning matrix (CLM) that are lost in the brave new world of MOOCs, a teaching format that certainly has its benefits, but one that must, at the same time, be considered within the context of the more intangible and less obvious functions of a person-to-person/student-teacher contact — even, and especially, within the context of the lecture hall.

Richard Etlin ’69 *72 *78 is a Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of the School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, University of Maryland. His fifth and most recent monograph, In Defense of Humanism: Value in the Arts and Letters (Cambridge University Press, 1996), focuses on creativity, genius, and the imagination.

Post Comments
4 Responses to Essay - Richard Etlin '69 *72 *78 on the lessons of teaching

Russ Stratton '60 Says:

2013-07-08 14:13:43

Absolutely correct. Fortunately, my teaching career ended before the advent of iPhones and the like, but I always believed there was some kind of magic (or not) between my lectures and my students, something that distance delivery would certainly preclude. -- Russ Stratton, Professor of English, Emeritus, Univ. of Alaska, Fairbanks

Jelena Bogdanovic *05 *08 Says:

2013-07-08 16:41:51

Excellent text and well-needed call for thought and action, especially when Princeton also started to hire "adjuncts," "lecturers," and "instructors" instead of "professors." Even virtual "social-interactive space" that MOOCs may provide would still remain "virtual." No data on MOOCs' effectiveness, to the best of my knowledge, though I can expect it would be comparable to effectiveness of lectures offered via TVs in rural America 60 years ago. For students overseas and for those with special needs, online or hybrid (online and face-to-face) instruction (with limited enrollment of students) may be the last resort, but this does not approve for massive open online courses in favor of regular classroom. I do not have any problem when my students bring their laptops and iPads to my classes (often they do not know better) because when I tell them "check me on wiki," most of them realize that it is not the point of education just to obtain information, but more importantly to learn what to do with it and to obtain skills how to critically analyze and discuss/apply various sources and ideas, as Richard Etlin elaborated in his essay (we may need a scholarly book as well :).

M. Krosse '72 Says:

2013-07-09 09:43:29

I think with the disheartening escalation in costs of higher education, claims regarding efficacy of any teaching methodology need to be fact-tested for learning outcomes; perhaps even A-B tested. And done so free of any self-interest or entrenched bias, tenured or otherwise. I am not sure anecdotes and citations of works of fiction suffice. For sure, live lecturing is sometimes a performance art - but the media industry long ago innovated a way to reduce the $200 average cost of a live performance Broadway ticket to a $5 rental download from For many students, listening to a lecture might primarily be a passive experience. Many may benefit more to "learn by doing": solve problems or write an essay. Actually practice the integration of facts and ideas into a coherent whole ... rinse ... repeat. I agree that Q&A can greatly amplify a collective learning experience. But in a semester lecture series, time constraints permit only a small percentage of students to engage in Q&A. MOOCs appear to greatly expand the aperture for student engagement with both instructors and peers. Paraphrasing Michael Lewis' "Moneyball": The collected wisdom of [academic] insiders over the past century(s) is subjective and often flawed. Rigorous statistical analysis may demonstrate other, far better indicators and methods of teaching success.

Allen Scheuch '76 Says:

2013-07-09 13:50:27

As a freshman at Old Nassau I had a most memorable preceptor in an introductory architecture course. He was bearded, soft-spoken, friendly and ... intense in his excitement about the subject and about teaching it. He often paused on a campus pathway or inside the architecture building to chat with us; he was genuinely interested in us, in what we had to say and how we were getting on. His name was Rich Etlin. Best from Brooklyn and, 40 years later, thank you!
Tell us what you think about
Essay - Richard Etlin '69 *72 *78 on the lessons of teaching
Enter the word as it appears in the picture below
By submitting a comment, you agree to PAW's comment posting policy.
CURRENT ISSUE: July 10, 2013
Related stories
The future of education?
As the world gets a taste of Princeton, Princeton gets ideas to improve at home
The world is his classroom