Film day in Grade eleven

8 mm Kodak film reel

Image: Coyau / Wikimedia Commons

Some of my favorite days in school were film days. They were a little like film days in the movie “School of Rock”, where Jack Black’s character plays old movies on the VCR to fill out class time (before he realizes his students can be the basis of a rockin’ band!)

The last film day I remember was in Grade 11 physics. The teacher told us he had a great film to teach the concepts of electricity and magnetism, so he played it for us. Like Jack Black, our teacher then sat at his desk reading something (maybe the newspaper, I don’t remember) while the film played. Some real effort had gone into this educational film – there were deep and convincing analogies between electricity and magnetism and water pipes and pressure, and the animation was first-rate. But I paid little attention, and talked to my friends, as did everyone else.

Years later, I became a physicist and a professor – not because of, but probably in spite of my Grade 11 class. Professors talk occasionally about the same idea my Grade 11 physics teacher tried: have film days instead of classroom lecturing. We debate the value of distance learning via video-taped lectures – the value in terms of teaching, and the value in terms of any dollars and cents savings, as we don’t need to pay professors to read newspapers.

Of course, since the 15th century, we have had devices to implement distance learning for a comparatively low cost. These devices are far superior to films or taped lectures. Huge effort has gone into creating these valuable devices. They are called books. For example, if you want to learn about statistical mechanics, a subject which is a personal favorite of mine, all the material (and more) that I would cover in a course is available at no cost in these two book drafts (here and here). But I would recommend you take the course, not just read the drafts. We know this instinctively, but it seems to be a paradox: there is more information in these two book drafts than I cover in my lectures, plus I have thought long and hard about (almost) every sentence and (almost) every equation in these drafts. But you should still take the course.

In music, there is a parallel situation that also seems paradoxical. Why pay a high price to hear a live performance of a string quartet playing Mozart, when you can buy the world’s most accomplished recorded performance of any piece by Mozart for a comparatively low cost? Why go to hear Eric Clapton play guitar and sing – live – at a fairly hefty cost, when you can purchase the best and most carefully recorded performances of his entire musical career for a nominal price? And here is another odd thing from the other side of the stage: after musicians give a performance, if it is a good performance, they are invigorated and on top of the world (and vice versa for a bad performance). It is the same thing in the classroom: after a professor gives a lecture, if it is a good lecture, the professor is invigorated and on top of the world (and vice versa again).

I suppose my point is clear by now. Like concert halls, classrooms are two-way experiences. As McGill contemplates the nature of our involvement with massive open online courses, the most important resources will be the people: staff and students committed to teaching and learning through student engagement. As I mentioned above, Jack Black’s character found that out in “School of Rock”, when he finally engaged with his students to form a rockin’ band! All Universities contemplating the role of information technology in courses must do the same if these courses are to be a success.

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