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Taylor Halverson: What is a lecture? A technology of learning

When you hear the word “lecture,” do you have negative feelings?

As a kid, a lecture is what I would hear from my parents when I did something wrong. Strange that when I arrived at college, I was still being lectured at by my new “parents,” college professors, as though something was wrong. Ironically, what was wrong was the technology of the lecture. No one seemed to be aware that the technology of lecture had been eclipsed centuries previously.

Incidentally, I define technology as any tool or process created or used by humans to solve a need.

So what does the word “lecture” mean? The Oxford English Dictionary shares this definition: “Lecture, noun. The action of reading, perusal; also, figuratively. Also, that which is read or perused.”

Since one of the fundamental skills required for college admission is a student’s ability to read, why are professors reading to them in class? Is that an effective use of time? An effective way to teach? An effective way to honor and support the incredible learning abilities of the students? Why is the lecture such a time-honored activity in education? I suggest an answer: tradition (i.e., resistance to change).

What is the origin of the lecture?

Before the printing press, before college bookstores, students couldn’t buy the thinking and knowledge of an expert in the form of a book. They had to go directly to the expert. The expert had expertise written out in book format. But since there was no printing press, and hence only one copy existed, the most efficient way for learners to get access to that expert content was for the expert to read it to the learners. And, as the expert read to them, the students acted as dutiful scribes, writing down every last word. Amazingly, then, each student had a personal copy of the expert’s work when the course came to a close. What a phenomenally efficient solution to a vexing problem.

But then around A.D. 1450 (think of how many centuries ago that is), a potentially disruptive innovation was invented, the technology of the printing press. Suddenly, the efficiency and effectiveness of getting access to the greatest thinkers in the world was magnified. Since students could read for themselves and buy books for themselves, there was no compelling reason to have a professor read the same knowledge to them. Then why did this tradition of reading to learners (i.e., talking at them) — which should have been immediately put out of business — survive for so many centuries?

As Tevye sings in "Fiddler on the Roof," “Tradition!”

Professors saw themselves as only professing their knowledge and not also as learning designers. And students continued to go to class to be taught instead of going to learn. There is a difference. Being taught is passive. Learning is active. Professors and students colluded in this enterprise. The ancient rules of learning went like this: Professors are to act and students are to be acted upon. However, the rules for learning should empower learners to act for themselves.

I believe this is the most exciting time in all of human history. The fields of teaching, learning and technology are ripe for change. New technologies and learning designs of all sorts will emerge to support the incredible potential of human learning no longer bound down by the traditions of ancient practices such as the lecture.

I believe that enlightened actors in higher education who most want their students to learn will use a variety of methodologies to design learning experiences for students, and that those methodologies will provide a robust approach for truly designing learning for real people.

Some of these thoughts were originally published on my blog,, in posts titled "The lecture: A technology 562 years past its prime," "Moving beyond the lecture" and "Twilight of the lecture."

Taylor Halverson, who holds doctorates in biblical studies and instructional technology, is a BYU teaching and learning consultant. His website is His views are his own.