Lectures are commonly used in higher education as a crucial part of the course foundation and delivery of course content. In-person lectures have an ability to “stress what is significant and important, to clarify tone and intent, to situate and conceptualize meaning, and to provide emotional background” (Rose, Harbour, Johnston, Daley, & Abarbanell, 2006, p. 13). Much of this cannot be interpreted from text alone and a written lecture may miss the mark in stimulating a student’s interest and motivation to learn.
On the other hand, in-person lectures can be cognitively demanding for students and result in gaps in transfer and comprehension as attention is lost or disrupted.
When designing lectures to be placed online, a unique opportunity emerges. In an online setting, multiple means of representing content and engaging students are more possible than ever. Designing for multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement are keystones to Universal Design for Learning and result in a more positive learning experience for all.
Research conducted using a course in the Harvard Graduate School of Education demonstrated application of Universal Design for Learning in lecture design and delivery (Rose, et al, 2006). Taking their findings into account, many strategies and examples transfer easily to the online classroom setting. The following represent strategies from the Harvard study by Rose et al. (2006) as they may be applied to an online classroom setting.
Provide multiple means of representing lecture content.
In a physical classroom lectures are primarily given in person. In the online environment lectures may be given a number of ways. Revisiting the purpose of a lecture (adding context, connecting content to the profession or society, highlighting key points, etc.) may be helpful before beginning to design and plan for a lecture. When you determine your purpose for the lecture you can begin to see multiple opportunities and methods to represent and address the crucial messages and to tell your story. Those methods may include a combination of video, audio, image, interactive learning object, graphic, etc. Additionally, video requires synchronous captions, audio requires a transcript, and images require descriptions to ensure that all students can explore and benefit from any of these options.
Break lecture content into smaller chunks.
A 45-minute lecture, for example, puts a tremendous amount of cognitive load on the brain. For most people, attention span runs out at about five to seven minutes at the maximum. In fact, the average length of time watched of a single internet video is 2.7 minutes (National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2014). Additionally, when content in a single lecture is complex and consists of multiple topics and concepts, this can become even more cognitively burdensome.
In an online environment, we have a unique opportunity to break lectures into smaller bite-size chunks that allow students to see a larger concept broken into meaningful pieces. It also allows students to revisit sections that they either missed, didn’t understand immediately, or found most profound. For students with English as a Second Language or students with disabilities this can be particularly valuable.
One added bonus to chunking content is that if updates are needed to lecture content in the future, it can often be edited more easily in smaller pieces.
Highlight and repeat key points.
While context, examples, and connections are an important part of a lecture, it is also important that students can easily identify the key points of the content. These key points should be highlighted and repeated in lecture content through a variety of means. Key points can be highlighted using PowerPoint slides for emphasis and the lecturer can stress these key aspects in the narrative or audio. Additionally, these key points should be repeated and even used to create the structure of the lecture. These key points may even help in determining how to best chunk a lecture into smaller pieces.
As pieces of the lecture are chunked and key points identified, the lecture should reinforce what’s been covered so far through ongoing and brief recaps of how the key points connect and where the student is currently within the sequence.
Use PowerPoint slides to provide structure.
PowerPoint often gets a bad rap due to either overuse or improper use. The truth is that PowerPoint can be valuable when used correctly. PowerPoint slides can be used to accompany a video lecture (often side-by-side video recording is available) when used to highlight key points or to provide structure to the lecture. In the Harvard study, PowerPoint is primarily used to introduce new topics in the lecture and to summarize previous sections (Rose et al., 2006). As the study mentions, PowerPoint should provide “the structure but not the substance of the presentation” (Rose et al., 2006).
Describe visuals with text and audio.
A visual graphic or image that reinforces the concepts and represents relationships can be quite valuable to include in lecture content. For visual learners or those who are new to the content this can provide added support through multiple means of representation. PowerPoint slides may be used for this purpose. When visuals are used in a video presentation the lecturer should describe the visual orally so that it can be captured in audio and included in the captions. Additionally, that added audio explanation can help drive home the relationship between the graphic and the content. If an interactive learning object is used, be sure to include alternate text for graphics and make sure that it can be navigated with a keyboard.
Offer opportunities for discussion, collaboration and interaction.
Chances are that a single lecture will be interpreted in as many different ways as there are students in the class. Each student has their own unique brain networks that contribute to how a student processes information, organizes and expresses ideas, and engages with the content (CAST, 2013). All of these varied interpretations, perspectives, and personal connections are a gold mine if captured and shared so that students can learn from each other.
One way to capture this potentially powerful element is to provide a shared space where students can contribute their notes taken during the lecture and can read the notes of others. In these notes students are likely to capture what they perceive as key points, bring in additional information from past courses, add their own commentary, and include lingering questions (Rose et al., 2006). In reading each other’s notes they have the opportunity to consider a concept in a new way, achieve a deeper level of understanding about the concept, and perhaps be supported if a concept was challenging to grasp.
One potential tool that allows for this type of interaction is VoiceThread. Students can share their notes/thoughts/reflections through a variety of methods, including video, audio, or text. Another option (though perhaps less flashy) is to provide a wiki space, such as CarmenWiki, where students can contribute. Finally, creating discussion threads around a lecture that act as a free space for students to discuss, share, and interact around the content is a simple and viable option.
Offer opportunities for self-checks.
In a single 45-minute lecture students are often not given the chance to reflect and touch-in to identify if they are grasping a concept before moving on to the next. This metacognitive activity of reflection is crucial to meaningful learning and transfer of knowledge. In fact, Quality Matters standards speak to the importance of allowing students multiple opportunities to check their own knowledge.
With this in mind, when lectures are chunked into smaller pieces (see strategy above), this gives students a chance to reflect and regroup before moving on to the next topic. To support students in this reflection, self-checks can be placed within the course between lecture elements. Self-checks can be a variety of activities including things like journal entries, games, discussions, or an ungraded quiz. Allowing students this opportunity to stop, digest information, and consider how it connects to what they already know allows for meaningful transfer of knowledge and helps to ensure that this new information is assimilated into the student’s current thought processes and perceptions.
Coming soon…Creating Universally Designed Discussions
CAST. (2013). About UDL. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/udl/index.html
National Center for Biotechnology Information. (2014). Attention Span Statistics. The Associated Press.
Rose, D., Harbour, W. Johnston, C.S., Daley, S., Abarbanell, L. (2006). Universal Design for Learning In Post Secondary Education: Reflections on Principles and Their Application. National Center on Universal Design for Learning.