Small school expands use of ‘one-minute lectures’

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

San Juan College has found a new way to keep students from dozing off while learning – make them one minute long.

The small Farmington, N.M. community college is pioneering the for-credit use of what they call “micro-lectures,” extremely short videos that distill a topic into its most fundamental ideas. The online lectures are used in conjunction with assignments and individual projects that allow students to become more active learners and discover topics on their own.

“Learners don’t want to be drawn into a long lecture,” said Michelle Meeks, an adjunct faculty member at San Juan. “It allows me to be more succinct in my teaching.”

Meeks teaches an online class on academic reading. She prepares a micro-lecture on a different topic each week, condensing what would normally be an hour and a half of material into about 60 seconds.

Each lecture begins with an overview of the topic. Meeks then presents students with a list of “key terms” they are expected to learn on their own.

“I encourage them to go forward and Google these terms, see what they can find and come back and complete the exercise,” she said.

Meeks concludes her lectures by recommending strategies for students to continue learning the topics. She includes two discussion questions with each lecture, and students must often conduct outside research to respond.

One of the benefits of micro-lectures is that “students can watch the lecture three or four times,” Meeks said.

Richard Fiske, one of Meeks’ students, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that the reading class was his first class to use micro-lecture. But, so far, Meeks has done a good job implementing the new technique, he wrote.

“It’s kind of a great jump start,” Fiske wrote in his e-mail, “but a little more would be nice.”

According to Meeks, getting caught up in the one-minute limit is not a good idea. But three minutes is usually more than enough to get her point across, she said.

The micro-lectures “give you all the information you need to know,” Shannon Boettler, another of Meeks’ students, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “But they’re short enough that it is easy to stay focused and pay attention the whole time.”

Boettler, who works and participates in a community theater in addition to taking online and classroom-based courses, described herself as “a busy girl.” Micro-lectures have “made life easier,” she wrote.

Meeks is not the only faculty member in San Juan who uses micro-lectures. Chris Baade, an assistant professor of mathematics at San Juan, is in the process of creating them for her beginning and intermediate algebra classes.

Baade will spend her summer creating micro-lectures to supplement face-to-face interactions with students. Each lecture will include both instruction from Baade and practice problems.

“If students miss class, they’ll have something to view and catch up,” Baade said. “They can also view it before they come to class or use them to review for placement exams.”

Micro-lectures cannot replace classroom interaction, Baade said. Her remedial-level students generally “need a little more assistance.” Micro-lectures are a “huge back-up plan,” she said.

Micro-lectures are not new in the education scene. Ten years ago, the University of Pennsylvania started using them to tell students about “interesting bits of research,” and videos were targeted towards students interested in pursuing topics beyond the scope of a course, said Dennis DeTurck, the dean of the school’s College of Arts and Sciences. Each semester, professors would “distill information” to only the most important facts and create 60-second lectures to be presented outside the classroom.

“It’s interesting to see what you leave out,” DeTurck said. “Sometimes you have to leave out stuff that makes you sad to leave out.”

David Penrose, manager of online services and the senior instructional designer at San Juan, said the current generation of students was one of “net learners” making the online lectures a good tool for independent study.

Another idea San Juan administrators had, Penrose said, was “to find a learning system that would use smart phones – cell phones that had video and that consumed little air time.”

Hour-long lectures tend to make learning more passive, Penrose said, but micro-lectures force students “to be more specific on what they are learning.” The assignments are also just as important as the micro-lectures, he said.

Andries van Dam, a professor of computer science at Brown, is skeptical of micro-lectures. He said the concepts he addresses in his class are too complex to reduce to 60 seconds.

“This is the American propensity to reduce everything to sound bites,” van Dam said. But micro-lectures might be effective as a tool for reviewing concepts mastered in class, he said.

Sandra Tracy, San Juan’s dean of the School of Extended Learning, said micro-lectures have been a success. They are being used by multiple programs at the college, including the college’s safety program, archaeology, English and cultural heritage classes, she said.

“It entices students to learn more about a topic,” Tracy said. “And it is easy for them to get the essential bits of information.”

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