EDITORIAL NOTEBOOK: Economics in Constant Supply

This past Thanksgiving, Senior Lecturer on Economics Jeffrey Wolcowitz decided the class he teaches, Economics 1010a, would be videotaped and broadcast on the Internet. "As an experiment I will have the rest of the lectures videotaped...I'll try it and if it works I'll do it again, and if not I don't feel any commitment for doing it for the whole term in the future...that's the good news." Now that the term has all but ended, I can already assure Mr. Wolcowitz that "it works." The videotaped lectures are not a replacement for actually attending the class, but they allow students to take full advantage of the information provided in lecture, and add positive reinforcement to the class on the whole.

Many professors refrain from broadcasting lectures on the Internet because of the fear that students will stop attending the lecture and replace the classroom experience with watching the lectures on the web. This is not a legitimate fear. The lectures broadcast on the web cannot compete with class for two reasons: First, lectures are broadcast three or four days after the class. Students interested in doing well on the Friday problem sets will want to attend the lectures that week.

Second, there is something about attending class that makes learning the material more interesting and attractive. A student loses out on the ability to ask questions when the lecture is watched from behind a screen. It is true that students who skip lecture will use the video to learn the material. But students who choose to miss class would miss class whether the lecture is broadcast or not. The decision to sleep through a class does not depend on whether that class is videotaped. Students know that they can get the notes if they miss class; by having the class broadcast, the students are better able to learn the material. There may be students who would force themselves to go to lecture if the class were not broadcast, but it seems better to watch the lecture on the web than to fall asleep in lecture. The broadcast lectures give students who do miss class the opportunity to learn the material.


The broadcast can benefit all students by providing a reference for homework and exams. Students who generally do not attend class--because they are too tired or hung over--may be enticed to watch the broadcast lectures at their convenience as opposed to not at all. Students who would have gone to the lecture but were prevented from doing so by extenuating circumstances--sickness, accidental oversleep or off-campus activities--benefit from the broadcast of lectures on the web. This option provides these students with the opportunity to recapture the material they missed. For these students most of all, taping the lectures and broadcasting on the Internet "works" because watching the lectures off the Internet is preferable to viewing videotapes at the library.

The Internet is open 24 hours a day. It doesn't "close" on weekends or holidays. This allows students to watch lectures at their leisure. Students will choose to watch lectures when they are best able to absorb the material, rather than during the limited hours that the libraries and viewing rooms are open. This convenience holds special importance when test time rolls around, and students may want to watch the welfare economics lecture at 3:30 a.m. Constant availability of the lecture material contributes to an ease of learning for the student.

A convenience of location is achieved by broadcasting the lectures. Sitting in a dorm room at a desk a student is in comfortable surroundings, and does not have to schlep to the library, or deal with a television, VCR, or any strangers at all. It is no coincidence that I have watched the economics lecture I missed this semester, but have not gone to the library to watch videotapes for any of my other classes.

However, there are potential distractions in the dorm room that do not exist at the library. Roommates, Napster, phone calls and visitors can all contribute to a difficulty in fully appreciating the lecture. Headphones can help alleviate this problem, and with the use of the pause button, parts of the lecture will not be lost. Along the same lines, the broadcast lecture easily accommodates a pause for bathroom breaks, and allows students to replay parts that are confusing or which they don't understand.

The technology of streaming video on the Internet allows a student to view from any point in the lecture without wasting time with fast-forward or rewind. Granted, streaming video over the Internet has not yet matched the quality of VHS video. But the sound comes through clear as could be, and the drawings on the blackboard are accurate, even if it is after a few second delay.

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