Life is a Mystery

15 January 2009


The Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL) initiative was underway before I left MIT. Today it got some love from the NYT in an article about the demise of large lectures.

Here’s what it was like:

Squeezed into the rows of hard, folding wooden seats, as many as 300 freshmen anxiously took notes while the professor covered multiple blackboards with mathematical formulas and explained the principles of Newtonian mechanics and electromagnetism.

John Belcher, a space physicist who arrived at M.I.T. 38 years ago and was instrumental in introducing the new teaching method nine years ago, was considered an outstanding lecturer. He won M.I.T.’s top teaching award and rave reviews from students. And yet, as each semester progressed, attendance in his introductory physics courses fell to 50 percent, as it did, he said, for nearly all of his colleagues.

And now:

The physics department has replaced the traditional large introductory lecture with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning. Last fall, after years of experimentation and debate and resistance from students, who initially petitioned against it, the department made the change permanent. Already, attendance is up and the failure rate has dropped by more than 50 percent.

Very telling are some of the comments on Slashdot:

Personally I don’t think this is the best approach, but it certainly isn’t forgiving of a student’s absence from class.

As a side note, when I was a freshman, many of my classmates did not find the TEAL lectures to be terribly effective in teaching the material. Frequently they would go back into the video archive after class and watch recordings of the “traditional” lectures from years past to actually learn what was being taught. They just went to the TEAL lectures because they didn’t want to loose their participation credit.

MIT OpenCourseWare to the rescue! Put the old lectures online, take advantage of proximate atoms off line.

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Eric Celeste / Saint Paul, Minnesota / 651.323.2009 /