Thursday, May 9, 2013


Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, recently suggested that online courses herald the end of traditional lectures.

In an excellent article in The Observer newspaper, Philip Henshaw, novelist and professor of creative writing at the University of Bath-Spa, UK and John Mullan, writer and professor of English at University College London, went head to head and argued the case for and against.

Henshaw argues: "Since I took to lecturing myself, I generally approached it as cabaret. You and I have stood together and yammered in front of silent audiences of sighing Germans. Since nobody much walked out, we believed ourselves to be extraordinarily fascinating. This discovery for academics is thrilling, and so there is an incentive to hang on to the hour-long lecture. But, realistically, if one wanted to teach anyone anything, I think one should make them participate, interrupt, ask questions, disagree, talk back, and that's the alternative route I've taken. There are probably a dozen lecturers  in this country so brilliant you don't want to do anything but listen to them for an hour. The rest of them should approach learning as an exchange with students."

According to Mullan, this approach is flawed. "Participation, interruption, disagreement – all those student responses you celebrate are virtuous, of course, so you have class or seminar teaching, where they are part of the deal. But sometimes the students want to know what the academic knows," he says.

"Learning shouldn't all be exchanging thoughts with students (and in the sciences and quantitative subjects it often cannot be this). The students can find it frustrating (as they tell us) when they have to spend their time listening to the least informed but most opinionated fellow student in the room."

So does this logic apply for ophthalmology students? I'd welcome your comments so let me know your views.

Colin Kerr

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