Mandatory Lectures? Really?

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Our new blogger Hugo Bezombes, following the pre-master New Media and Digital Communication, couldn't believe his eyes when he read the requirements of one of his first courses in Utrecht. Suddenly he was back in high school.

‘MANDATORY LECTURES’. I have to say, I was a little shocked when I read those words in Osiris.

This is the first time since high school that I ‘have to’ be somewhere. It brings me back to the days where my teachers would roll-call students to make sure that everyone was present.

Mark C. Present. Camille L. Present. Hugo B. Present. 2 minutes of every hour, of every day for 14 years. That adds up to 4 days of my life just spent listening to names being read out.

Of course it’s different now: my name isn’t being explicitly called out, I don’t have to stand in line to enter the (digital) classroom and, I understand the benefits from a University’s perspective.

It reduces absenteeism to nearly 0. It increases student throughput. In these corona times, it creates semblance of structure in the digital campus. Sure, all these things are positive and make lectures livelier, but I can’t help but think that it fails students. Students are being treated like children while at the same time being spoon-fed the idea that they are destined to become the ‘leaders of tomorrow’.

Personal Responsibility & Intrinsic Motivation
I think the first failure of mandatory lectures is in teaching personal responsibility. You are responsible for your own study and putting in the hours. Having a babysitter might be okay when you’re 12, but it certainly is not when you’re 22. Sometimes in a form of implicit social contract, you aren’t asked, but only expected to show up.

This has a direct knock-on effect on the ability to do things powered by intrinsic motivation: students are being taught that they need to do something because someone is breathing down your neck. I suppose this is perfect for creating docile employees, but it isn’t to educate people that will drive the change that the world needs. The extensive list of extra-curricular running on willpower and coffee is already a testament of student motivation, so why can’t it just be the same for the classroom?

Inputs vs Outputs
Another aspect that it fails students on is the fact that it teaches people to think in terms of inputs instead of outputs. If you can do an assignment in 4 hours instead of 8, then good on you: you have been productive, and you should be rewarded. Not made to attend mandatory Q&A where you review the proper methodology. By measuring what you do for a course in terms of time invested instead on top of outcome, the university is effectively giving participation medals to its students.

Of course, you could argue that its about keeping up with course material to avoid inevitable cramming sessions before exams (we’ve all been there), but if that’s your argument, intermediate assignments would be a more effective solution. I think we can all agree that there is a difference between being present and participating.

Flexibility
My main concern though is that it reduces the flexibility of student life that should be inherent in student life. As a student you are more than the sum of your lectures. You are the seminars you go to and organise, the parties and drinks you attend, the late-night study sessions you take part in and the ‘bijbaantjes’ that you have. Not the mandatory lectures you participated in.

Not only is this a failure to trust students to find their marks and prioritise what’s important on their own, it also fails to take into consideration the shifting nature of the labour market. The reality is that we are living, at least in part, in a gig economy with jobs that require sporadic presence and input. Flexibility shouldn’t be considered as a free-pass for partying, but as a professional skill. When that big project at work comes along, you are expected to make time for it.

A Small Dose of Reality
I realise of course, like I mentioned at the start of this blog, that there significant upsides for the university in having this system, but I left the most important one for the end: it’s all about the money.

The university doesn’t get paid (by the government) for you learning these life skills, it gets paid when you receive your diploma. So, until the time that society learns to prioritise life skills above pieces of paper, I guess we’ll be stuck in this system.

Anyways, if you want to find me, I’ll be at my lectures, though not because I have to.

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