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.