Via discussion on Twitter, I was led to an article by Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, which included this little gem:
Today students in most classrooms sit, listen and take notes while a professor lectures. Despite there being anywhere from 20 to 300 human beings in the room, there is little to no human interaction. Exams often offer the first opportunity for the professor to get real information on how well the students digested the knowledge. If the test identifies gaps in students' understanding of a basic concept, the class still moves on to a more advanced concept.
Virtual tools are providing an opportunity to rethink this methodology. If a lecture is available online, class time can be freed for discussion, peer tutoring or professor-led exploration. If a lecture is removed from class time and we have on-demand adaptive exercises and diagnostics, there is no need to continue the factory model inherited from 19th-century Prussia—where students are pushed together at a set tempo. Instead students can progress at their own pace and continue to prove their knowledge long after the formal course is over.
You are hereby invited to insert a loooooong, drawn-out sigh at this point in the post.
Did you hear the sigh? Good.
I am not going to say that there are no faculty anywhere, in any discipline, who stand in front of the class and lecture in a monotone while the students play games on their cellphones obediently record their words of wisdom. In fact, I can well imagine that there are some disciplines in which this scenario occurs on a regular basis. But. When I was an undergraduate at UC Irvine from far too long ago 1988-92, I spent most of my time in lecture courses (40-75 or so students) with the older, more "traditional" professors, and none of them taught this way. I repeat: none of them taught this way. There was always interaction, in the form of questions, discussion, etc. (sometimes aided by TAs). Moreover, there were papers (because, well, English department). There were quizzes. We were neither sitting there passively nor playing games on our cellphones (OK, we weren't doing that because that was the pre-cellphone era, but you know what I mean). And there was this fascinating concept known as "office hours," of which I availed myself on a reasonably regular basis. Moreover, when I took courses outside the English department, thanks to that phenomenon known as "GE requirements," those faculty also expected us to utilize our vocal cords in a useful manner.
A-ha, readers cry! That was an R1 with a well-off student body! Well, then, wander on over to my regional comprehensive. If you walked into one of my classes, you would find that a lot of my lectures involve me asking lots and lots of questions of the students--and most pedagogical theory types would consider me a pretty traditionalist sort of prof. (And when I'm teaching poetry, I'm usually extemporizing from marginal notes in order to get around the "droning in front of the classroom" issue; I use written notes for longer works or for presentations with lots of factual material.) The students do regular group work, they do oral presentations (group and individual), they write essays, they take quizzes, and, more recently, they also post to a wiki. We are already doing discussion in the classroom. I don't know if the problem here is a bias towards science instruction; it's certainly not news to commentators on humanities instruction that our classrooms come "flipped," as it were. Now, certainly there are real issues with students operating at different levels of achievement or preparation, but even those aren't insurmountable in a face-to-face situation (tutoring, tailoring grading to individual progress, office hours, etc.).