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Interesting thoughts on lectures and MOOCs

But we also thought lectures were redundant. Indeed, one star performer, A.J.P. Taylor, who attracted vast audiences to his television lectures, too, told us so, although we all suspected that he did so only to prove himself wrong by telling us all sorts of things we would not find in books and would not hear from tutors. The thought was obvious enough: the Gutenberg Revolution had rendered lectures redundant as a means of imparting knowledge. Before the invention of moveable type and the possibility of producing books on a mass scale, oral transmission of knowledge (or speculation) depended on carefully constructed, often dictated, lectures and on students with ready pens and excellent memories. By 1960, lectures had long been redundant – since shortly after 1440. But lecturers were paid to lecture, so lecture they did.

Of course, all this has to be taken with a grain of salt: much university teaching takes place in small classes, whether in labs or in seminars. An audience of fewer than 30 lends itself to give-and-take discussion – beyond that you need the genius of the likes of Michael Sandel, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass professor of government at Harvard University, who somehow contrives to create a dialogue with 1,000 students in a lecture theatre.

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