Monday, 3 March 2008

Taking note

Back of the class

Having recently finished the last lecture of my masters course I wanted to make some notes on how things seemed to have changed since my undergraduate course. My undergraduate course was four years of full-time study, living with friends or in college. My masters has been two years of part-time course while working at TfL. Clearly there are a lot of differences, but I don't want to write about these. What really struck me was how different the actual lecture and study process was.


The most obvious change is in the way people behave. It's difficult to write this without looking like a stuck-up malcontent, but the behaviour was much worse than while I was at Durham. I can't say if this is because of my particular class, the subject, the passage of time or the different university. People would routinely talk, quite audibly, in lectures. There were regulars who would turn up to every lecture and just talk to each other the whole way through. They not quiet about it, they're not subtle about it (as we used to try and be in Durham). I've seen people on the phone during lectures (seldom trying to hide the fact), and it is very common to see laptops open across the lecture theatre, not one of which being used for anything related to the lecture (facebook, youtube and Windows Live Messenger seem to be the distractions of choice). I find this all somewhat bizarre - no one is keeping these people at the lecture, so if they truly have no interest why not go elsewhere?

Interestingly people seem to turn up late. At Durham it was typical for a few people to drip in at five or ten minutes past the lecture start, and there would be the occasional twenty-ish minutes late arrival which usually got a chuckle from the class. This is nothing for people who attend these lectures. It was typical for people to come in half an hour late, and almost every week there were several people arriving over an hour late. Given the lectures started at the same time every week I don't understand this - the class size was fifty (smaller than in Durham), and only about 30 would turn up at all each week.

The library was also interesting - Imperial's library has two types of area - one that are "quiet study areas" and others that are for group work. Quiet doesn't seem to be a word well understood - conversations are routinely held without any effort to whisper. There is, generally, the concession made that phone calls should take place in the stairwell, but this is not always followed. The group work areas are intended to be noisier, but in reality they're just people sitting round a computer laughing at a youtube clip. In Durham we had separate computer rooms in the library - even in these people were normally very quiet.

So why the change? I have a few theories. One is that the totally ubiquitous nature of the mobile phone, along with much more common use of laptops, make people much less aware that there is a distinction between talking to someone (on the phone) and any other activity - the two blend together. In lectures it also is overwhelmingly international students who make the most noise - I don't know why this is - one guess is that if the lecture is not interesting then it may be even less interesting if it's not in your native language (and thus even harder to follow), so it's easier to lapse into talking to a friend.

It's far from all doom and gloom though. I'm amazed how far technology has come along. It's common for lecturers to e-mail out slides or further reading to the class. Laptops are so much more common, the entire site has WiFi, collaborative work is so much easier with Google Docs. The number of journals that are accessible online is vastly improved, and the creaky authentication via ATHENS is all done invisibly now. The ability to VPN into Imperial's network from home is a far cry from the glacially slow dial-up service that Durham had. A few years of technology's development have made a big difference.

I would be intrigued if other people have comments about how lectures have changed.

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